Bloomberg News

Google Staff Said They Were Unaware of Data Gathering, FCC Says

April 29, 2012

Google Inc., based in Mountain View, California, has been facing rising scrutiny from federal regulators about how it handles private data. Photographer: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

Google Inc., based in Mountain View, California, has been facing rising scrutiny from federal regulators about how it handles private data. Photographer: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

Google Inc. (GOOG:US) employees who worked on a mapping-service project told the U.S. Federal Communications Commission they didn’t initially know about software that would gather personal data, even though an engineer disclosed the program’s details, according to an agency report.

The unidentified engineer, who made the disclosure in an internal project document, also told at least two fellow workers about how the software program would access so-called payload data, which includes personal information such as e-mails, according to the FCC report, which was re-released yesterday by the company with fewer portions redacted.

The FCC compiled the report as part of an investigation into whether Google’s collection of private data through its Street View map product was a violation of the Communications Act. The agency said in the April 13 document that it decided not to penalize Google for the data-gathering, though it assessed a $25,000 fine for not cooperating with the inquiry.

“Engineer Doe specifically told two engineers working on the project, including a senior manager, about collecting payload data,” the agency said in the report. “Nevertheless, managers of the Street View project and other Google employees who worked on Street View have uniformly asserted in declarations and interviews” that they didn’t know about the private-data gathering, which began in 2007, until April or May 2010.

Street View sends cars to photograph buildings and homes in neighborhoods. Google has said the data collection was a mistake, and last week said that it would pay the FCC’s penalty to conclude the inquiry.

Privacy Concerns

The Mountain View, California-based company has been facing rising scrutiny from federal regulators about how it handles private data. Last year, Google agreed to 20 years of independent privacy audits to settle claims with the Federal Trade Commission that it deceived users and violated its own privacy policies with the Buzz social network.

The report’s details were reported earlier by the Los Angeles Times. Google released the less-redacted version of the FCC report after saying earlier this week it had cooperated fully with the agency.

“We decided to voluntarily make the entire document available except for the names of individuals,” the company said in an e-mailed statement. “While we disagree with some of the statements made in the document, we agree with the FCC’s conclusion that we did not break the law. We hope that we can now put this matter behind us.”

‘Sensitive Information’

For three years starting in May 2007, Street View cars collected from wireless networks content that wasn’t needed for the project, according to the FCC’s April 13 findings. Google gathered e-mail and text messages, passwords, Internet-usage history and “other highly sensitive personal information,” the FCC said. Google “grounded” the cars after learning about the data gathering.

The agency didn’t penalize Google for the activities because communications and wiretap law were unclear and the engineer who said he told other workers, called “Engineer Doe” in the report, had declined to testify, the FCC said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Womack in San Francisco at bwomack1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tom Giles at tgiles5@bloomberg.net


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