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Google Takes More Heat in Wi-Fi Privacy Flap

By Kenneth Corbin

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Two House lawmakers are calling on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google's accidental collection of sensitive Wi-Fi data, echoing the calls of several European regulators in a mounting controversy for the search giant.

Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-chairs of the House Privacy Caucus, asked FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in a letter whether the sensitive data Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) collected with its StreetView cars constituted an unfair and deceptive trade practice or whether it violated federal law.

The lawmakers also asked for detailed information about the Internet traffic that Google inadvertently collected when it equipped the cars in its StreetView fleet with software designed to collect only basic, non-sensitive Wi-Fi data.

"Thus far, Google has acknowledged it collected private e-mail and Internet surfing data, but it has not yet clarified the extent or nature of the data collected," Markey and Barton wrote.

The lawmakers' call for an FTC probe follows mounting scrutiny over the Wi-Fi data interception in Europe, where several countries including Germany, Italy and Spain have opened criminal investigations into the incident.

Google apologized for collecting the data last week, calling it a mistake that resulted from an experimental piece of code that was inadvertently included in the software used by the cars Google dispatches to photograph cities block by block for its StreetView product.

The StreetView cars began collecting basic Wi-Fi information such as network names and equipment ID numbers in 2007 in an effort to improve Google's location-based services, but the company said it never intended to intercept the contents of people's Internet transmissions.

A Google spokesman declined to comment on the investigations beyond a statement e-mailed to IntneretNews.com: "As we have said since we made our announcement last week, we are working with the relevant authorities to answer their questions and concerns."

Revelations of the StreetView gaffe come at a time of heightened scrutiny for Internet companies as government officials and advocacy groups are stepping up calls for tighter rules policing the way firms collect and use consumers' online information.

Facebook, for instance, has been the subject of pointed criticism for a recent set of policy changes that made its users' information more widely available on the Web. Consumer groups have called on the FTC to investigate the company, while the agency is in the midst of a broader proceeding looking into online privacy that could see new guidelines or rules for social networks.

Facebook has also been meeting with congressional staffers as some lawmakers have grown concerned about the company's complex and often-changing privacy settings.

One of the groups that has been sharply critical of Facebook's approach to privacy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, today lashed out at Google for what it called the "Wi-Fi debacle."

"Google is too mature to be making these kinds of rookie privacy mistakes," EFF Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Graneck wrote in a blog post. "When you are in the business of collecting and monetizing other people's personal data-as Google and so many other internet businesses are-clear standards and comprehensive auditing are essential to protect against improper collection, use or leakage of private information."

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.