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Google Taking Political Heat Over Wi-Fi Privacy Flap

Google's accidental interception of some Wi-Fi transmissions is, for at least a few politicians, the gift that keeps on giving.

A trio of U.S. House of Representatives members wrote a letter (PDF) to Google CEO Eric Schmidt on Wednesday asking a dozen detailed questions about the Street View flap, including whether the inadvertently intercepted data were destroyed and whether an outside review of privacy practices will take place. It was signed by Henry Waxman (D-CA), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Joe Barton (R-TX).

The letter comes exactly a week after Markey and Barton called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the search company's inadvertent collection of Street View Wi-Fi data violates the law. A few days earlier, Google had acknowledged that because of a programming error, its Street View cars had intercepted fragments of data from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks for periods of 200 milliseconds at a time.

In response to a query from CNET, a Google representative said: "As we have said before, this was a mistake. Google did nothing illegal and we look forward to answering questions from these congressional leaders." (Google declined to say whether or not it was talking with the FTC.)

Wi-Fi networks that aren't encrypted--that is, open wireless networks--are trivial for anyone to monitor. Some of the more popular packet-sniffing tools are even free.

But just because it's technically possible to capture packets on an open Wi-Fi connection doesn't mean it's legally permitted.

A federal law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act says that anyone who "intentionally intercepts" any electronic communication, including a wireless communication, is guilty of a crime. But accidental or inadvertent interception doesn't count.

That is why some of the class action lawsuits that have been filed--at least three so far, in California, Oregon, and Massachusetts--come as a bit of a mystery, if not a surprise.

Robert Carp, a lawyer in the Boston area who filed one of the lawsuits seeking class action status, says that "Google's collection of data is nothing more than a further attempt to enhance their advertising capabilities." But it's improbable that Google's rather well-compensated executives would countenance federal felonies in pursuit of a few more advertising dollars, and even less likely that, if they did, they would have publicly admitted it in a blog post two weeks ago.

Moreover, Google says the data collected, totaling about 12 Blu-ray discs' worth of data worldwide, has never been reviewed or analyzed. (It's possible that there's more to this story than has been made public, of course, but given the amount of regulatory scrutiny in Europe so far, we'll find out soon enough.)

Read the rest of this article on CNET

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