A U.S. senator resurrected year-old questions about Google Street View cars sniffing Wi-Fi networks Tuesday, when he questioned a company representative about a patent application covering a process to pinpoint location based on nearby Wi-Fi signals.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, pointed to a November 2008 patent application by Google for wireless network-based location approximation in questioning whether Google meant to snoop on Wi-Fi network signals during its Street View sweeps.
Google's collection of personal data on Wi-Fi networks, include e-mail messages, passwords and browsing history, is "contemplated" in the patent application, Blumenthal said during a hearing on smartphone privacy before the Senate Judiciary Committee's privacy subcommittee.
News reports questioning the connection of the patent application to the Wi-Fi snooping first appeared in mid-2010.
Alan Davidson, Google's director of public policy for the Americas, told Blumenthal he was not familiar with the patent application, but said that Google did not intentionally collect the personal data.
"Are you aware that this process may have been used in the Street View program to collect private, confidential information?" asked Blumenthal, who investigated Google's Wi-Fi sniffing when he was attorney general in Connecticut.
Davidson said he would be "very surprised" if Google used the technology described in the patent application to collect personal data. "We have tried to be very clear about the fact that it was not our policy to collect this information, it was not the company's intent to collect the content or payload information," he added. "People at the company were quite surprised, and honestly embarrassed, that we had been collecting it."
Google has destroyed some of the information it collected and is working with regulators to determine the best way to handle the rest of the information, Davidson said.
When Blumenthal asked if the personal data that Google collected could be valuable in creating a network map, Davidson said it's unclear how "snippets" of information collected by passing cars could be useful.
Google has said that the patent application was unrelated to the Wi-Fi sniffing.
Google revealed in May 2010 that its Street View cars had been sniffing the content of users' communications on open wireless networks.
Blumenthal asked Davidson whether the Wi-Fi snooping was illegal. When Davidson suggested it wasn't, the senator asked him if it should be illegal.
"I think this raises a really complicated question about what happens to things that get broadcast in the clear, and what the obligations are [for] people hearing them," Davidson said. "It's an important question."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross.