In the long list of legal issues Google is facing at the moment, here's another one to add to the record: Consumer Watchdog suspects the Mountain View-based company to have picked up unprotected payload data (i.e. Wi-Fi) from the home network of a member of the Department of Homeland Security as well as from houses of members of Congress. Ironically enough, person who has most likely been snooped upon is Rep. Jane Harman, D-CA, chair of the Intelligence Subcommittee of the Homeland Security.
Officials At Risk
Following the acknowledgement by Google that it has recorded data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks, Consumer Watchdog has launched its own investigation and has found that the search engine's 'WiSpy,' as it calls it, is highly likely to have collected data from one of the chair of the Intelligence Committee's home networks. It said it sent its own crew in the neighborhoods of government officials whose houses had been captured on Street View. The basic assumption here is that "If a residence is pictured, it means Google likely gathered data about wireless networks at that location," the watchdog said. It provided the 19 pictures as well as the names of the officials (Harman and 18 Congressional members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee) on its Inside Google website.
The public interest group tagged Harman's Wi-Fi as being "a clearly identifiable and vulnerable network" as it's unprotected. It said it sent technicians with the same equipment as Google StreetView cars' to conduct the test but did not, unlike Google, collect or store any of the data. Other vulnerable networks were identified "near" the Washington residences of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA; Ed Markey, D-MA; John Dingell, D-MI and Rick Boucher, D-VA. But "the networks could not be definitively tied to the Congressmen's residences, however," the consumer group noted, providing a report on the members' networks. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over Internet issues.
Call fo Legal Action
Warning those officials at risk, the consumer group sent letters to Harman and all others, calling for "immediate hearings," it said in a statement. Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, commented: "Whether it's compromising government secrets or our personal financial information, Google's unprecedented WiSpying threatens the security of the American people and Congress owes Americans action." His call was supported by consumer advocate John M. Simpson: "It's clear there are members of Congress whose networks could have been breached... We call on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to hold hearings and demand answers about exactly what information Google has in its servers. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt should testify under oath."
Ongoing U.S. Lawsuits
Google is already facing multiple lawsuits on its rogue Wi-Fi data collection, in the U.S. Former prosecutor Paul Ohm, however, thinks that Google would have violated regulations not for collecting data from unprotected networks but "for intercepting the metadata and address information alongside the content" under the Pen Register and Trap and Traces Device Act, Wired quoted him as saying.
Elsewhere around the globe, more legal action is likely to be sought against the search giant (no pun intended), including in New Zealand, maybe Hong Kong as well as across Europe. In France for instance, Google's StreetView cars were found to have lifted email passwords and banking data. One of the issues in the Google's sniffing case is that countries have different stances as to what to do with the data collected. Ireland, for example, requested that it destroys the gathered information immediately, whereas plaintiffs in the U.S. request that the data be kept for material proof of wrongdoing.
In the U.S., the government and government agencies' links with Google may put them in a legal limbo. Point in case, the Whitehouse deputy CTO, a former Googler, had bypassed privacy rules by using his personal mail to communicate on official business with Google notably. He got ticked off but no more although consumer Watchdog at the time requested that he be demoted. Another limbo element is the government asking Google (and Facebook for that matter) to submit comments on a federal privacy legislation draft introduced in early May although the search giant is notorious for its privacy breaches. Also, back in February, the National Security Agency had teamed up with the Mountain View-based company to fight cyber attacks, sparking Internet users' fears that the alliance would give the government open access to private data. Ironically, today Google is actually snooping on what we hope is uniquely private data from National Security and Congressional members...
As Consumer Watchdog points out, Google's lobbying spending rose 57% to $1.3 million in the first quarter. "It spent $4.03 million on lobbying in 2009, according to disclosure forms filed with the Senate Office of Public Affairs," the public interest group said. "Its political action committee, Google Inc. NetPAC, has already given $175 400 to federal candidates this year, according to The Center for Responsive Politics. That compares with only $31 000 for the entire 2006 election cycle."
Separately, Google touted on its $54 billion contribution to the U.S. economy in 2009, even releasing a full report on it.
Let's definitely keep our eyes peeled on what happens next in the long Google Wi-Fi/WiSpy/Snafu - you name it - saga.