A report from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has accused Google of knowingly collecting households' Wi-Fi data, a practice the search giant has long argued happened by mistake during the design of its Street View service.
The FCC's 17-month investigation found that Google supervisors and Street View engineers had known about the plan to collect so-called payload data. The uncensored report raises questions about Google's version of history, which painted the decision as a mistake by a lone engineer (who refused to speak to the FCC by invoking the Fifth Amendment). As Google posted in 2010:
So how did this happen? Quite simply, it was a mistake. In 2006 an engineer working on an experimental WiFi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast WiFi data. A year later, when our mobile team started a project to collect basic WiFi network data like SSID information and MAC addresses using Google’s Street View cars, they included that code in their software—although the project leaders did not want, and had no intention of using, payload data.
As soon as we became aware of this problem, we grounded our Street View cars and segregated the data on our network, which we then disconnected to make it inaccessible. We want to delete this data as soon as possible, and are currently reaching out to regulators in the relevant countries about how to quickly dispose of it.
However, the FCC report cited a feasibility study into Street View by an unnamed Google engineer.
“A typical concern might be that we are logging user traffic along with sufficient data to precisely triangulate their position at a given time, along with information about what they are doing,” the engineer had warned.
His report also concluded that privacy discussions were needed with Google's product council. “That never happened,” the FCC reported.
The FCC report concluded that Google had not breached U.S. wiretapping laws but sharply criticized the company for obstructing its investigations, fining it $25,000 in the process. In a response, Google accused the FCC of causing delays in the investigation as well.
The data collection occurred during Google's efforts to supplement its map service with shots taken by its fleet of Street View cars.
Google believed it would be possible to offer location services to its users by mapping local area networks and Wi-Fi hot spots, by a process known as "wardriving".
“We decided to voluntarily make the entire document available except for the names of individuals,” a Google spokeswoman told the Los Angeles Times. “While we disagree with some of the statements made in the document, we agree with the FCC's conclusion that we did not break the law. We hope that we can now put this matter behind us."