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Google Claims Wi-Fi Data Gathering Legal

Google has told three Congressmen that it doesn't believe it broke any U.S. laws in gathering data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks, a now discontinued practice that has sparked lawsuits in the U.S. and legal troubles in Europe.

Google sent a letter Wednesday to Reps. Henry Waxman, Joe Barton and Edward Markey in response to the lawmakers' request for an explanation of the search company's collection of private information. While Google apologized for the data-gathering snafu, the congressmen were unsympathetic.

"Google now confesses it has been collecting people's information for years, yet claims they still do not know exactly what they collected and who was vulnerable," Barton said in a joint statement with his colleagues. "This is deeply troubling for a company that bases its business model on gathering consumer data."

The Congressmen, who have asked for a Federal Trade Commission investigation into the incident, released the letter Friday. In the document, Google acknowledged that its Street View cars equipped with Wi-Fi antennas might have collected people's personal information. However, the company did not believe the data-gathering missions were illegal.

"We believe it does not violate U.S. law to collect payload data from networks that are configured to be openly accessible, i.e., not secured by encryption and thus accessible by any user’s device," Pablo Chavez, Google's director of public policy, wrote. "We emphasize that being lawful and being the right thing to do are two different things, and that collecting payload data was a mistake for which we are profoundly sorry."

Google has been collecting Wi-Fi data from its Street View cars since 2007, when it started using the vehicles in taking street-level pictures of cities for inclusion in Google Maps services. The Wi-Fi information was meant to be suitable only for Google's location-based services.

However, Google said code mistakenly used in the data-gathering software made it possible to collect people's personal information, if it was transmitted while a Street View car was connected to the Wi-Fi network. Google first discovered the privacy problem in May, after German authorities requested all the data being gathered in that country for an audit.

Google claims it has not analyzed the Wi-Fi data, so doesn't know what it contains, and says the only people who have seen it are a software engineer and a security engineer in the company. Google has stopped gathering data from Wi-Fi networks.

Because of the many lawsuits it faces, Google has not destroyed Wi-Fi data gathered in the U.S., but is storing it in its "raw, aggregate, binary form." The company has deleted data gathered in Austria, Denmark, and Ireland at the countries' request, and is cooperating with investigations in Canada, France, Germany and Spain.