Google slides off the hook for Wi-Fi sniffing with $25,000 FCC fine


Two years ago, Google admitted its Street View cars were collecting “payload data.” In other words, Google’s cars were capturing people’s personal information sent over unprotected Wi-Fi hotspots. After more than a year of investigating, the Federal Communications Commission has come to the conclusion that Google did not violate any laws, but still slapped it with a $25,000 fine for impeding the investigation.

According to The New York Times, Google was said to be unreachable by the FCC, and rejected requests to identify the individuals involved in the incident. Consequently the company was fined for its failure to cooperate, thereby violating the Communications Act of 1934. The fine is hardly an alarming fine for a company with deep pockets, which reported a net income of $2.89 billion in Q1 2012.

Because owners of unencrypted Wi-Fi hotspots failed to simply implement a password, the FCC decided that Google could not be found at fault for collecting unencrypted data. Unencrypted data could have been collected by just about anyone. Programs like Firesheep make it possible for even basic users to monitor the Web browsing habits of Wi-Fi users on the same network.

Google insisted it had no intentions of using the collected data, which included e-mails, instant messages, Web addresses and other identifiable information. Once given the green light by the FCC, Google confirmed that it would destroy the data.

The FCC’s fine is rather diminutive in comparison to the €100,000 that was charged to Google by the French Commission on Computing and Liberty for collecting payload data, again from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks.

So did Google do it intentionally, or not?

On one hand, engineering the capability for Street View cars to even obtain payload data is rather suspect, but what doesn’t Google already know about us? Most of us search exclusively through Google. Thanks to Google Plus, Google knows who our friends are. Gmail will even recommend email recipients from knowing the relevant email correspondences, while suggesting the appropriate ads based on what we’re writing. Google Chrome knows what websites we frequent.

For those of you worried about your privacy, this case is a reminder about just how susceptible many of us are when we fail to take precautionary measures to protect our data.