FTC drops inquiry into Google Street View flap

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By Cecilia Kang
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 12:24 PM

The Federal Trade Commission told Google on Wednesday that it has ended an inquiry into a privacy breach from the company's collection of e-mail, URL and passwords through its Street View mapping cars.

In a letter to Google's Seattle-based attorney, Albert Gidari, the FTC's head of consumer protection said the agency dropped its review after Google promised late last week to beef up privacy training and to delete data collected from Wi-Fi networks around the world.

"This assurance is critical to mitigate the potential harm to consumers from the collection of payload data," said the FTC's David Vladeck wrote. "Because of these commitments, we are ending our inquiry into this matter at this time."

The announcement, the first acknowlegement of an investigation by the FTC into the Street View data breach, drew criticism from civil liberty groups. They said Google's practices needed to be examined more carefully, saying that other regulators around the world have sanctioned the firm or launched fresh investigations. The United Kingdom opened a new probe into Google's Wi-Fi data collection, which could expose the firm to fines.

"We are deeply disappointed that the FTC dropped the ball on this matter," said Jeffrey Chester, head of Center for Digital Democracy. "An ongoing investigation is warranted because this episode shows a larger pattern of data collection that is disturbing and needs to be examined."

The FTC noted that the company didn't put enough emphasis on privacy within its ranks. It wasn't until German privacy regulators question Google about the Street View mapping application that the company discovered it had scarfed up data from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks passed by its Street View cars.

Vladeck stressed that companies should gather Internet user data "only to the extent necessary to fulfill a business purpose." He said data not used for business purposes should be disposed of to maintain consumer privacy.

But the company's announcement last week to appoint engineer Alma Whitten as a director of privacy and to expand privacy training among engineering ranks assuaged earlier concerns, the FTC said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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