Google may have thought it dodged a bullet recently after the Federal Communications Commission imposed a small fine for impeding investigation into the company's Street View project, then dropped the matter. But new developments indicate the controversy could be coming back.
On Monday, The New York Times published a story identifying the Google engineer who wrote the software that collected private electronic data as the Street View cars were cruising streets around the U.S. and other countries, primarily to take photos for Google Maps. The FCC had noted that it had been unable to continue its investigation in part because the engineer had invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
The Times reported that the engineer was Marius Milner, who is said to be highly regarded in Wi-Fi networking. The FCC had said it knew the engineer's name from Google, which had identified him to state investigators, but the FCC had chosen to describe him as Engineer Doe.
More important, his explanations in the recently released full FCC report contradicted Google's contention that the data-gathering software was the act of a rogue employee.
The released FCC report said that Milner told at least one supervisor and as many as seven other engineers about his efforts, and that data harvesting without a great deal of regard for privacy was a regular mode of working at Google. He also said that his intentions were outlined in a proposal to his managers.
That revelation has led at least one consumer advocacy group to file a federal Freedom of Information Act request with the FCC, seeking all related documents.
Additionally, new reports on Wednesday indicate that privacy regulators in Great Britain, France, and Germany may reopen or expand their investigations, since this latest bit of information contradicts Google's explanation to them, and suggests there might be wider infringements.
Up until this point, all the European investigations into Street View except two in Germany had been resolved.
'Wasn't a Mistake'
Hamburg's data protection commissioner, Johannes Caspar, told the Times that his agency "had been told that it was a simple mistake, as the company had told us." But, he said, they are now "learning that this wasn't a mistake and that people within the company knew this information was being collected."
New or reinvigorated investigations in the U.S. are also possible. In response to the new information, Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., has called on Google to more fully explain what it knew about the data collection. An investigation by more than 40 state attorneys general is continuing, as are almost a dozen civil lawsuits.
The FCC fine of $25,000 had been for noncompliance with its requests, and the agency had reported that it would "not take enforcement action" for collection of payload data, because there is "no clear precedent" for applying the Communications Act to the collection of Wi-Fi data, especially because the data was unencrypted.
A separate inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission in 2010 had resulted in Google's agreement to set up internal privacy controls and methods.