Google Wifi Network
Google v. FCC: And the Winner is [REDACTED].
By Rob Schill
Apr 20, 2012
This much is known: between 2007-2010, Google collected Wi-Fi network data all over the world in support of its Street View project. In addition to providing totally bitchin’ online photos of just about anywhere in the world, the Street View project collected network data to support various location-based services. But in collecting those data about available networks here, there and everywhere – including home wireless networks – Google also happened to collect the actual content of various unencrypted communications carried over these networks (i.e.,“payload” data) – things like e-mails, text messages, passwords, Internet usage history, and other potentially sensitive personal information.
Within a month of the FTC’s exit, the FCC had fired off a Letter of Inquiry (LOI) in an effort to figure out whether Google’s data collections had broken the law. The law in this case is Section 705(a) of the Communications Act (which, oddly enough, is codified as 47 U.S.C. §605(a)). In relevant part (that would be the second and third sentences of Subsection 605(a)(6)), it bars the unauthorized interception, followed by divulgence, publication or use, of certain radio communications.
The LOI sought vast amounts of information and documents about Google’s Wi-Fi data collection activities. Google reacted like any public-spirited organization with nothing to hide would – by cooperating fully, opening its files to the FCC and happily walking the agency through the complexities of its data-collection process . . . NOT. Au contraire, Google mounted an impressive effort – some might call it stonewalling – to keep the FCC in the dark.
The LOI was designed to bring in huge numbers of documents – including internal emails relating to the data collection process – so the Commission was doubtless disappointed with what Google produced: a very small handful of documents, a few apparently unhelpful interviews, and no emails at all. The paucity of materials presumably stemmed, at least in part, from Google’s somewhat circumscribed approach to the LOI. According to Google, it had “not undertaken a comprehensive review of email or other communications” because doing so “would be a time-consuming and burdensome task”. (Having responded to our share of LOI’s, we are sympathetic to Google’s concerns here; we only wish that we had thought to raise the “Gee, that’s a lot of work – we think we’ll pass” defense.)
The Law About Collecting Data over Wifi (spying)
The law in is Section 705(a) of the Communications Act (which, oddly enough, is codified as 47 U.S.C. §605(a)). In relevant part (that would be the second and third sentences of Subsection 605(a)(6)), it bars the unauthorized interception, followed by divulgence, publication or use, of certain radio communications.