Is National Security Behind Google’s Wi-Fi Spying?

Thu, Jul 22, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Has search and advertising giant Google been tracking you just to sell you stuff — or is it because the U.S. government asked it to? A congressional hearing later today may raise more questions than answers.

    Since May, Google has been in hot water worldwide over the information it collected during its street-mapping projects. European regulators have been pressing the company since it was revealed that Google collected information from Wi-Fi networks as its street-view vans cruised neighborhoods around the globe. The information Google gathered included e-mail fragments and passwords, alarming politicians and privacy and security advocates in Germany, France, and Spain.

    Recently, the Washington Post noted as part of a two-year investigation into America’s intelligence community that Google supplies special mapping and search products to the U.S. military and intelligence community, with some Google employees enjoying top secret clearance to work with the government. That news has consumer advocates and politicians asking exactly what information Google has collected — and why.

    “Is there some relationship between Google and the NSA (National Security Agency)?” asked Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. “Was this data shared with intelligence agencies in America? It’s a question. We just want a straight answer.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) civil-liberties organization has also weighed in, demanding that Google “grow up.”

    If there is such a connection, it would explain why there has been little federal government reaction. Representatives would be extremely reluctant to call for an investigation if they felt it might compromise national security, Court noted.

    Still, there has been pressure from state governments. A group of 38 state attorneys general led by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has asked Google for detailed information on what it gathered, how the software was tested (if it was inadvertent), and who at the company was responsible for the Wi-Fi spying. The state AGs have also asked the Energy and Commerce Committee to hold hearings on the issue and said they could take legal action if it doesn’t get answers.

    For Google’s part, a company spokesperson reiterated the search engine giant’s official position to in an e-mail:

    “As we’ve said before, it was a mistake for us to include code in our software that collected payload data, but we believe we did nothing illegal. We’re continuing to work with the relevant authorities to answer their questions and concerns.”

    “But this may be the biggest wiretapping issue in our history,” underscored Court, “and we haven’t had a hearing on this!”

    While no specific hearing on the issue has been held yet in the U.S., a little-noticed subcommittee hearing taking place Thursday in Washington, D.C. may shed light on the issue. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will be taking witness testimony at its Government 2.0: Federal Agency Use of Web 2.0 Technologies hearing starting at 2 p.m. One of the witnesses will be Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson.

    Whether any of the congressional members will ask Simpson specifically about the Google scandal remains to be seen. But the ranking member of the committee is Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has been known to latch onto hot-button issues with the tenacity of a pit bull. (Issa’s office did not return calls asking what questions will be asked.)

    More troubling to some watchdog groups is that the tentacles of the Wi-Fi spy scandal could stretch far and wide, perhaps touching on Google’s troubles with Chinese censorship and the hacking scandal. Google was the victim of hacks that went deep into its databases. The source of the attacks was traced back to Chinese computers.

    At the time, Google said that hackers were interested in sensitive commercial and technical accounts. However, given the type of information that Wi-Fi spying could collect — such as when its vans cruised by embassies or government offices, for example — the Chinese hacking case raises further dangers.

    “One of the greatest concerns is that they’ve got so much data,” said Consumer Watchdog’s Simpson, “and that’s available to anyone who can hack into it.”

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