Unredacted FCC Report Shows Google’s “Wi-Spy” Consumer Data Capture Was Intentional

Two weeks ago the FCC released a document that asserted Google had obstructed its investigation into whether Street View WiFi mapping and related consumer “payload data” capture had violated Federal wiretapping laws. It imposed a $25,000 fine for Google’s “forfeiture” (non-compliance with the investigation) but held that there was no legal liability under the federal law.

The heavily redacted FCC document raised numerous questions. Among them: why would Google resist the FCC’s investigation, was it hiding something?

Google has denied obstructing investigation

Last week Google pushed back against the characterization that it had not cooperated or that it had obstructed the FCC’s investigation:

“Over the course of the 17 months it took the FCC to officially conclude its investigation, the commission did not contact Google for weeks and months at a time,” Google wrote in the reply. It described two periods of silence — one gap of 83 days and another gap of 52 days — in which Google never heard from the agency. “It is difficult to reconcile those lengthy delays with the FCC’s criticism of Google’s responses as ‘untimely,’” Google argued. The company noted the commission ran against its deadline and received Google’s approval to extend the review period by seven months.

Unredacted report revelations

This weekend Google released a mostly underacted version of the  FCC report to the press to help “put the matter behind us.” However, what it does, as many news outlets have already reported, is show that the Google actively sought to capture unencrypted consumer data with its Street View rounds. The intentional behavior identified in the report contradicts Google’s official position, which had characterized the episode as a “mistake” and entirely unintentional.

According to the FCC the engineer asked to develop software to map WiFi hotspots and networks wrote code that captured consumer payload data (emails, URLs, etc.) because it “might prove useful for other Google services.” Described as “Engineer Doe” in the report, that  individual invoked the Fifth Amendment and did not provide testimony to the FCC.

This was partly why the FCC decided not to pursue criminal liability against Google:

Moreover, because Engineer Doe permissibly asserted his constitutional right not to testify, significant factual questions bearing on the application of Section 705(a) to the Street View project cannot be answered on the record of this investigation.

Engineer told others at Google — who don’t remember

The FCC report details several instances in which Engineer Doe informed others within Google of the payload data capture. However a number of Google employees quoted or otherwise cited in the FCC document deny knowledge of the practice to varying degrees. There’s a he said/she said quality to the discussion of “who knew what and when?”

However the FCC concludes based on all the documents reviewed that this “rogue engineer” was not at all “rogue.” Rather he was someone doing the job he was asked to do and had simply written code that collected consumer information he thought would be valuable to Google.

Overall the report paints a picture of lax internal supervision at Google and general disinterest in the privacy implications of the consumer payload data, at least among the rank and file and first tiers of management. Because it wasn’t encrypted data, only unencrypted consumer activity, Google might have thought this was fair game especially if the data stayed within Google.

Duplicity or simply negligence?

Google critics will see evidence of duplicity or “evil” on Google’s part. I see something that looks more like negligence and insufficient oversight. But the history of the episode is disturbing. One does get the sense, in the wake of the FCC report, that Google’s public statements about this being a “mistake” were much more spin and damage control than honest explanation of what happened.

There’s also a bit of a pattern here. Most recently Google’s behavior around circumventing iOS Safari privacy settings seems to reflect a similar “paternalistic” attitude toward consumer privacy.

I believe rather than “put the matter behind” Google it will fuel a perception that Google needs to be monitored or restrained. Indeed it will be used as evidence by those on both sides of the Atlantic who believe Google needs regulatory intervention.

Read the report yourself and decide.

FCC Report on Google Street View Payload Data Capture

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Google: Legal | Google: Street View | Legal: Privacy | Top News


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn

Marketing Day:

Get the top marketing stories daily!  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. You can read more about our comments policy here.

Comments are closed.

Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Marketing Land on Twitter @marketingland Like Marketing Land on Facebook Follow Marketing Land on Google+ Subscribe to Our Feed! Join our LinkedIn Group Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Marketing News!

Marketing Day is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!