Already under investigation by countries in Europe and elsewhere, Google now finds itself the subject of a U.S.-based government probe. On Monday, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he would head up a multi-state team to look into the search giant's collection of data from its Street View vehicles.
Blumenthal said more than 30 states participated in a recent conference about the investigation. The company also faces a possible formal investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which has said it is looking into the matter.
'Street View,' Not 'Complete View'
Blumenthal described Google's collection of data as a "deeply disturbing invasion of personal privacy." He added that "Street View cannot mean Complete View -- invading home and business computer networks and vacuuming up personal information and communications."
Blumenthal said consumers have a right and a need to know if personal information, including e-mails, web browsing, and passwords, has been collected, how it was collected, and why. The investigation, he said, will consider if laws have been broken and whether new statues may be necessary.
It also will address such issues as whether personal data was ever extracted from the mass-captured stream, how the software code became part of the Street View program, why Google saved the unauthorized information, and if there have been other instances of unauthorized capture of consumer data.
He is also seeking information on Connecticut towns and cities where data may have been collected, what steps the company is doing to prohibit this kind of activity in the future, how and when Google learned about the capturing of private data, and "why Google Street View cars recorded the signal strength and quality of personal and business wireless networks."
600GB of Data
At least seven class-action lawsuits have been filed or are being planned in the U.S., in which plaintiffs contend that Google violated federal wiretapping laws. There are also criminal and other government investigations being conducted by Germany, Ireland, Italy, France, Spain, Australia and others.
The Street View controversy stems from the collection of private wireless data by Google's vehicles, which have gone down streets worldwide to collect photos for use on the company's Street View application within Google Maps. Google said about 600GB of data in 30 countries was mistakenly collected.
According to Senior Vice President of Engineering and Research Alan Eustace, the company originally acknowledged it collected SSID information from wireless routers passed on the streets. The SSID information contains the Wi-Fi network name and MAC address, which are the unique numbers given to a router. At first, Google said it did not collect "payload data," or the actual data sent over the networks.
But Eustace later acknowledged that "we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) Wi-Fi networks." The payload data included fragments of web sites, e-mails and possibly personal banking data.
Eustace said the data has never been used in Google products, and only fragments were collected because the cars were moving and the in-car Wi-Fi equipment automatically changes channels about five times each second. No data was collected from password-protected networks, he said.
'Clear Violation' of Google's Policies
The reason payload data was collected at all, he said, was that code to do so was inadvertently left in the software used to collect the SSID information following its initial development and testing, even though the project leaders did not want or need the information.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt has said this software was inserted "in clear violation" of Google's policies. The company has promised to employ an independent third party to conduct a public audit of its data-collection operation.