On Saturday, Google released the full report of the FCC’s 17-month investigation of its Street View project. While the company had long maintained that the harvesting of “payload data” — emails, passwords and other personal information from unsuspecting households with open Wi-Fi networks — was the work of a “rogue” engineer, the report reveals that supervisors knew about the program.
By way of comparison, News Corporation’s James Murdoch, the younger son of Rupert Murdoch who was the “heir apparent” to taking the lead of his father’s media empire until the phone hacking scandal broke out last summer, has repeatedly sought to maintain that such illegal practices were the work of one “rogue reporter,” rather than a practice pervading the culture of News International papers including the News of the World.
Google’s fleet of Street View cars gathered the “payload data” between 2008 and April 2010. The FCC released a heavily redacted version of its report on April 15; the report released on Saturday only redacted the names of the individuals involved. According to the FTC, Google did not violate any laws but it did obstruct the investigation and was levied a $25,000 fine. While that is a year’s tuition to some college students (and only half a year’s tuition to others), it is equivalent to the profit Google makes in 68 seconds.
As the full version of the report reveals, when the Street View program was created, “privacy considerations” were supposed to be discussed with “Product Counsel” but (says the report) “that never occurred.” Google initially refused to allow regulators to see what data had been collected, claiming that the data was legal and that privacy and wiretapping laws would be violated if it did so.
But what emerges from a reading of the full report is that:
(1) The engineer who began the project on his “20 percent” time (which Google allots to employees to work on their own initiatives) “specifically told two engineers” including a senior manager about collecting payload data.
(2) Street View engineers had “wide access” to the plan to collect payload data.
(3) At least seven Google engineers handled Street View data, with five testing the Street View code, a sixth reviewing it line by line and a seventh also involved.
In other words, there was something more than one “rogue” engineer working with the “payload data” and Google preferred not to have this information made known.
As the New York Times notes, the engineer who has found himself caught in the midst of an FCC investigation has “cited the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.” He could not be interviewed by the FCC so, consequently, there are “still unresolved questions about the case.”
As Tech Crunch observes, the company, quite eager to put the matter behind it and avoid Street View gate, said that “data mining was ‘inadvertent’ and that Google now has stricter privacy controls than in the past.” Collecting the data was all a “mistake,” as a Google executive wrote on a company blog in 2010. Both Tech Crunch and the New York Times hone in one sentence in the report that suggests that the data mining was intended from the start:
“We are logging user traffic along with sufficient data to precisely triangulate their position at a given time, along with information about what they were doing.”
As Tech Crunch asks, “Why would Google need to know what they were doing? Seems irrelevant if you’re just mapping the location of networks, doesn’t it?”
If that is all Google intended to do, that is.
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