Privacy Advocates Frustrated By FCC’s Decision on Google Street View

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Privacy advocates are unhappy about the FCC’s decision to give Google a pass on Wi-Fi snooping. In addition to calling for a wider investigation, these groups point to the move as a reason to argue once again for stronger U.S. privacy laws to prevent others from getting away with similar activity.

The FCC passed on launching a broader probe of Google’s practices to the dismay of some privacy watchers. The Mountain View, Calif., company refuses to detail what its Street View Vans collected, and the engineer who developed the code used to collect Wi-Fi data invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and declined to testify.

Federal Communications Commission logo
For that resistance, the company was fined $25,000. The FCC also says it cannot apply the Wiretap Act or the Communications Act to Google’s Wi-Fi snooping because the agency considers open Wi-Fi networks a form of broadcasting. Those acts only make it illegal to peer into the private communications of U.S. citizens without a warrant.

“People are broadcasting when they have a public Wi-Fi network,” ACLU legislative counsel Chris Calabrese says of the FCC’s ruling. “Get a system password up now.” Those who don’t secure their networks apparently give up their rights to privacy, in the FCC’s eyes.

The State of U.S. Privacy Laws

U.S. privacy laws are a mess, ACLU's Calabrese argues, and date back to 1986. Lawmakers at the time did not know about the Internet and the privacy issues raised by the free flow of information. That has all changed, he says. “You have massive collection of data from private parties,” he says. “It’s emphasizing the need for new privacy legislation.”

American lawmakers are far behind their European counterparts. There, EU-wide legislation mandated the creation of privacy agencies in each member state . As a result, the EU takes a much harder look at Google. A new proposed EU law would have fined Google two percent of annual sales ($990 million) for failing to protect user privacy and to alert authorities.

Lily Coney, associate director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), tells PCWorld that the biggest issue is Google’s non-compliance with the investigation. She points out that the public still doesn't know what Google collected, and says that the fine imposed was insufficient.

“Our position is that it is a violation of the wiretapping laws,” Coney says. “We need a full unfettered investigation to get all the facts. We can’t say here if we have all the facts.”

EPIC was one of the first organizations in the United States to take on Google over Street View and call for an investigation into its actions. Coney says that the next “logical step” is to put the matter in front of the Justice Department, a not-too-veiled suggestion that this matter is far from over.

“They intercepted personal communications,” she says. “No one has the right to intercept a personal communication.”

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