Google Fined $25K For Impeding WiFi Snooping Probe

Dennis Faas's picture

Google has been ordered to pay a $25,000 fine for impeding a government investigation into claims the search giant inadvertently snooped on home wireless networks. However, it looks as though the company will escape serious sanctions for the act.

The case resulted from Google's "Street View" project, which is now a part of its Google Maps tool. The project involved sending modified vehicles along nearly all public streets, using roof-mounted cameras to take a continuous stream of pictures.

At the same time, the vehicles also scanned for local wireless networks. Google intended to use the results to provide details of publicly available wireless "hotspots" so users of Google Maps could track down places to get online easily.

The company also intended to use each wireless network as a reference point so mobile phones could more easily figure out their precise position, a more accurate method than relying only on cellphone towers.

Rogue Engineer Blamed for Problem Code

But Google's data collection system had a problem: rather than simply collecting information about the networks, Google unintentionally collected large amounts of personal data being carried by the wireless networks, including email and online chats.

Word of this data collection technology led to international complaints and investigations by national data regulators.

Google's explanation was that a rogue engineer had created code that would collect the data in this way. The engineer had allegedly left the code in the final software system without informing Google of its existence.

Data Collection OK Under US Law

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been looking into the issue for more than a year. It has now decided that Google did not break any laws, accepting the company's promise to delete all the data as soon as relevant legal investigations are complete.

The FCC's ruling relies on the fact that Google did not actively "hack" any of the wireless networks. The company merely recorded data being transmitted in unencrypted form.

The same data could have been intercepted by anyone standing near the wireless networks concerned. (Source:

However, the FCC said it wasn't happy with the way Google cooperated with the investigation. At one stage, the regulatory agency had to obtain a subpoena to force Google to answer questions.

As a result, the FCC has ruled Google guilty of breaching the Communications Act of 1934 on the grounds that "the investigation was deliberately impeded," and has therefore levied the $25,000 fine. (Source:

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