Google Street View Car in Southampton, Hampshire, England (Image credit: Bally Hoo/Flickr)
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has officially cleared Google of any and all wrongdoing in connection to their practice of covertly intercepting data from unencrypted Wi-Fi routers in the United States.
That being said, this finding was still somewhat surprising since a federal judge previously ruled that Google could, in fact, be held liable for violating federal wiretapping legislation, which would thus potentially open Google up to lawsuits from individuals seeking damages.
It was not only a judge who found Google's claims to be laughable, in fact Joel Burin, the Bureau of Consumer and Governmental Affairs chief, wrote in 2010, "Google's behavior also raises important concerns. Whether intentional or not, collecting information sent over Wi-Fi networks clearly infringes on consumer privacy."
In an order made public on Monday (which you can read below with a great deal of redacted information, unfortunately), reflecting a decision made by the commission on Friday, it is said that Google did not violate any wiretapping laws when they snooped on open wireless networks with their Google Street View mapping vehicles.
The FCC said that between 2008 and 2010, "Google's Street View cars collected names, addresses, telephone numbers, URL's, passwords, e-mail, text messages, medical records, video and audio files, and other information from internet users in the United States."
This is hardly a minor breach of privacy, by any metric, as the FCC points out that some of the most personal pieces of data were secretly collected by Google.
Would you be comfortable knowing that a corporation like Google is collecting your passwords and medical records? I certainly would not.
The commission claimed that legal precedents and the fact that an unnamed Google engineer refused to speak to the FCC, citing his Fifth Amendment rights, meant that Google was not guilty of wiretapping.
"Based on careful review of the existing record and applicable law, the bureau will not take enforcement action," the FCC's enforcement bureau stated in their 25-page order.
The FCC originally started their investigation after the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) urged the agency to carry out an investigation in a 2010 letter.
Google claims that they did absolutely nothing against the law by "sniffing" Wi-Fi networks and capturing the private data belonging to Americans, and the fact that the FCC supported this claim is especially troubling for anyone who uses an open Wi-Fi network either at home or at a business offering free wireless internet.
One must wonder if that would mean that a hacker could steal information from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks without worrying about any consequences, as the decision makes it seem like such a thing could very well be expected in the future.
Then again, based on the fact that corporations and average people are subjected to two entirely different justice systems, I would personally be surprised if an individual was treated the same as Google.
The argument that won the FCC over did not hold up in any way when it was given to U.S. District Judge James Ware of California.
Judge Ware said that the lawyers who were representing the public had presented "facts sufficient to state a claim for violation of the Wiretap Act," thus making Google liable for potential wiretapping damages.
Google has claimed that they did not know they were stealing the private information from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks across around a dozen countries until German privacy authorities discovered what was going on and demanded Google reveal what their Street View vehicles were collecting.
The FCC stated that Google "collected and stored encrypted communications sent over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks," but they did not find evidence showing that Google accessed the information they hijacked, although the chances of them being able to prove that are slim to none, especially considering Google's non-compliance with the investigation.
This fact is highlighted by the FCC pointing out that the unnamed Google engineer "made it impossible to determine in the course of our investigation whether Google did make any use of the encrypted communications that it collected."
In other words, they didn't find evidence because they couldn't find any, not because there was a lack of evidence. They were simply blocked from actually examining the evidence.
Google claimed in 2010 that the entire fiasco was a "mistake" and that they only stole "fragments" of private information, all of which they say they haven't reviewed.
While the Wiretap Act, as amended in 1986, specifically states that it is not wiretapping "to intercept or access an electronic communication made through an electronic communication system that is configured so that such electronic communication is readily accessible to the general public," Judge Ware said that this only applied to "traditional radio services," not unencrypted Wi-Fi networks.
In other countries, authorities have not been so ready to say that Google was not at fault for their activities.
Indeed, in Canada, France and the Netherlands they have ruled that Google was in violation of their laws while back in 2010 the American Federal Trade Commission (FTC) opened an investigation and closed it without taking any action whatsoever against Google.
This FCC decision sets a somewhat troubling precedent and it is anyone's guess how this will be used in the future, however, none of those ways are positive in my view.
This just goes to show, if you are still using unencrypted wireless networks or failing to encrypt your internet traffic on public Wi-Fi, you're setting yourself up to have your information stolen. If you expect the government to do anything about it, you'll likely be sorely disappointed.
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