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Calling for Meaningful Wi-Spy Penalties Against Google

4:46 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog


Says State Attorneys General $7 Million Deal with Google Won’t Stop Company’s Serial Privacy Abuses

The $7 million deal announced today ending a multi-state investigation of the Google Wi-Spy scandal does virtually nothing to thwart the Internet giant’s repeated privacy violations, Consumer Watchdog said. The public interest group said Google should pay an amount that would affect its profits.

In addition to the $7 million to be divided among the 38 states and the District of Columbia that were involved in the investigation, the settlement deal provides that Google will create an educational campaign that features a YouTube video to teach consumers about protecting privacy on Wi-Fi networks.

“Asking Google to educate consumers about privacy is like asking the fox to teach the chickens how to ensure the security of their coop,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “The educational video will also drive consumers to the YouTube platform, where Google will just gather more data about them for its digital dossiers.”

Read the settlement with the state attorneys general here.

Google has become a serial privacy violator, Consumer Watchdog said. In the Wi-Spy case the company sucked up data including such things emails, passwords, and bank account numbers as its Street View cars photographed streets around the world. Before that the company exposed personal information of it users when it launched its unsuccessful “Buzz” social network. That privacy breach prompted a consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission. No sooner was the ink dry on the settlement, than Google violated it by hacking around the privacy settings on the Safari browser used on iPads, iPhones and other Apple devices.

“This settlement does nothing too stop Google as a serial privacy violator. The company now has a long history of violating users’ privacy, lying about it, apologizing, promising not to do it again, sometimes making a token penalty payment and then moving on to the next violation,” said Simpson. “The $7 million penalty is pocket change for Google; it’s clear the Internet giant sees fines like this as just the cost of doing business and not a very big cost at that.”

Will Google Buy Its Way Out Of Trouble For A Mere $7 Million?

8:40 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog


Reports were circulating in the tech press Friday that serial privacy violator Google is about to cut a deal with state attorneys general to close their investigation of the Wi-Spy scandal.

Remember what happened? Google sent specially equipped cars to travel the highways and byways of the world snapping photos of everything they passed. What Google did not say was that they were also sniffing out Wi-Fi networks and sucking up private data on those networks.

They got passwords, account numbers and email messages, including in France a couple trying to arrange an extramarital affair.

When first confronted, Google executives denied sucking up the data. Then they said it was all a mistake. Then they said it was the work of a rogue engineer. Consumer Watchdog was among those to call on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate. The FTC did, but dropped the probe after Google essentially said, “We’ll be nice.”

John Simpson The Federal Communication Commission opened a probe ultimately fining Google $25,000 for hindering its investigation. The FCC also found that the Wi-Fi snooping had been deliberate and that senior managers had been aware of it. The FCC said it could not determine if the law had been broken because the engineer who designed the Wi-Fi snooping exercised his Fifth Amendment rights and declined to testify.

Google tried to spin the FCC probe by saying the commission found they had not broken the law. That’s not what happened; the FCC said they could not determine if the law had been broken. A big difference.

Meanwhile, under the leadership of then Connecticut Attorney Richard Blumenthal, more than 30 state attorneys general launched their investigation of the incident, which is really the largest case of wiretapping in history.

It’s that state attorneys general probe that is reportedly about to be settled for $7 million. That may sound like a lot, but it’s not even pocket change to the Internet giant, which made $10.7 billion profit on revenues of $50.2 billion in 2012. Divide the fine among the states and it comes out to about $230,000 for each.

I asked Susan Kinsman, spokesperson for Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, now heading the investigation, about prospects for a deal. She said, “I spoke to our attorneys for a status report. As we’ve stated before, the Google investigation is active and ongoing. I can’t comment about any prospect for a settlement.”

Nonetheless, there are enough sourced reports out there focusing on the $7 million deal, that it sounds like it’s accurate. It was probably leaked on Friday by Google itself. That’s the way they usually play the PR game. By the time the settlement is officially announced it will be old news.

What’s important, by the way, is not the measly $7 million fine. It’s understanding what’s really happening. Once again it looks like Google, the serial privacy violator, is buying its way out of a jam with what for the Internet giant is pocket change.

We’ll need to see what other provisions the settlement contains. Will the state attorneys general give Google the same sort of pass that the FTC did when it allowed Google to explicitly deny it broke the law in the Safari hacking scandal and charged Google $22.5 million? What will happen to the data Google sucked up? Will there being any meaningful injunctive relief? Given Google’s record of repeated privacy violations and of bamboozling regulators, I’m not optimistic that much of anything significant will emerge.
Posted by John M. Simpson. John is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism at Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

Consumer Watchdog Mimes Invade Mountain View Before Google Shareholders Meeting

7:00 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Group Plans To Ask Google Executives What They Knew About Wi-Spy

Consumer Watchdog today sent its “Google Track Team” comprised of mimes dressed in white track suits to follow shareholders as they gathered for the company’s annual meeting in a bid to focus attention on the Internet giant’s online tracking activity.

A shareholder representing the public interest group will ask Google CEO Larry Page and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt during the shareholders meeting what they knew about Google’s Wi-Spy privacy violations and when they knew it.

The planned action before the meeting was meant to focus attention on Google’s online tracking activity and dramatize the need for the implementation of a Do Not Track mechanism so consumers can tell websites that don’t want their online activity tracked as they surf the web.

The mimes dressed as the “Google Track Team” in white tracksuits with the “Don’t Be Evil” motto and wore Google “Wi-Spy” glasses. They planned to track (follow) Google employees and shareholders as they checked in for the meeting and waited to be transferred by shuttle bus to Google headquarters.

“Tracking people in the real world is stalking. It’s creepy,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project director. “When Google and other Internet companies follow your every move online, it’s just as creepy, but most people don’t realize it’s happening. In fact, it’s Google’s business model. That’s why consumers need a way to stop being tracked when they surf the web.”

Consumer Watchdog will live-stream video of the mimes in action here.

Google will videocast the annual meeting here.

Consumer Watchdog called on Google to fulfill its pledge to implement Do Not Track on its Chrome browser and to honor the Do Not Track message on its websites. The group said Do No Track means do not collect data, not simply do not target ads. It called on Google to honor the do not collect approach.

The Wi-Spy scandal erupted two years ago when it was revealed that Google’s Street View cars were sucking “payload data” – emails, passwords, health information, banking information and other data – from millions of private Wi-Fi networks in 30 countries around the world. Google first said it didn’t gather payload data, then it said it had done so by mistake and then it said it was the work of rogue engineer. Recently a Federal Communications Commission investigation revealed that design documents for the Street View project discussed plans for “war driving” and gathering data from Wi-Fi networks. The FCC fined Google $25,000 for obstructing it investigation.

“It’s imperative that we know what role Page and Schmidt played in this massive invasion of privacy. What did they know and when they know it?” said Simpson. “I plan to ask them.”

Google CEO Page Should Testify To Congress As News Corp. CEO Murdoch Had To Answer To Parliament

2:22 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Washington, DC – In an opinion piece published in POLITICO today, Consumer Watchdog’s Jamie Court and John M. Simpson compare the treatment of News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch – who was called before Parliament in Britain to answer for hacking into the private phone records of families – and the kid glove treatment Google CEO Larry Page has received in America after a much larger privacy breach in which the new media giant collected personal information from millions of Wi-Fi networks around the world.

Consumer Watchdog called for a Congressional hearing to require CEO Page to answer questions under oath about what he knew and when he knew it regarding “Wi-Spy,” Google’s massive invasion of the privacy of home Wi-Fi networks.

Google Street View cars collected information – including private emails, bank account information and passwords – from the unsecured wireless networks of millions of people in 30 countries. Much as Murdoch blamed the phone hacking at its newspapers on a few rogue reporters, Google has insisted that a lone engineer was responsible for the company’s collection of years worth of private information from the public.

Read the opinion piece below, or at Politico:

Opinion Contributor
Congress needs to search for Google transparency
By JAMIE COURT and JOHN M. SIMPSON | 6/18/12 10:15 PM EDT

A billionaire media mogul is forced to take responsibility after his employees hack into the private communications of families and use the information for his media empire’s profit. He insists top executives did not know and a few rogue employees were to blame. But the evidence contradicts him.

The government committee investigating these actions grills the plutocrat and concludes he is “not fit“ to lead. His top underlings now face arrest.
That’s the Rupert Murdoch story in London. On this side of the Atlantic, however, Google Chief Executive Officer Larry Page is overseeing privacy invasions far wider than Murdoch’s. Yet his corporation is still avoiding serious scrutiny.

The Murdoch hacking scandal affected many lives, but Google’s map-making Street View cars hacked into millions of private Wi-Fi Networks in 30 countries around the world. They sucked up personal data — email, banking information and passwords and other information. The Federal Communications Commission has fined Google a mere $25,000 for impeding its investigation of Google’s Wi-Spying.

While Google tried to blame this entire enterprise on a rogue engineer, the FCC found that the engineer told many others at the company about the wireless data collection — despite the company’s denials that anyone else knew. The scheme was even outlined in Street View project design documents.

Read the rest of this entry →

Why we need to demand a Congressional hearing on Google’s Wi-Spying

3:00 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

For the last three years, Google cars and vans have been trolling the world’s cities and towns taking pictures of our houses, businesses and neighborhoods for Google Street View.

As it turns out, the whole time, they have also been Wi-Spying. They gathered data from private WiFi networks — including, quite possibly, the one you’re using right now.

We need your help. Sign our petition and demand that Google comes clean about the Wi-Spy scandal. Demand that Congress hold hearings immediately into the question of why Google thinks it’s OK to gather our private data and what they plan on doing with it. Google must also explain its relationship with the National Security Agency.

Sixty-nine percent of those responding to our national poll on Internet privacy agree on the need for a hearing.

Congress needs to act on what is potentially the biggest illegal wiretapping violation of all time. Just as BP’s CEO Tony Hayward had to testify before Congress to explain the Gulf oil spill, Google CEO Eric Schmidt must testify about the information spill the Internet giant caused.

Google claims its Wi-Spying was a "mistake." They claim they did nothing illegal. But they’re also spending millions of dollars to lobby Congress.

Are those lobbying dollars stopping Congress from doing the right thing? Please sign our petition.

Google refuses to reveal the nature of the private data they collected. Even worse, they refuse to say what they did or are planning on doing with it. Instead Google just keeps saying: Don’t worry. Trust us.

Do you trust a company that has been secretly collecting our private data to do the right thing?

It’s time for Google to come clean! It’s time for Congress to take action and investigate potentially the biggest wiretapping scandal of all time.

Please sign our petition.

John M. Simpson, director Consumer Watchdog’s Inside Google project

Consumer Watchdog poll finds concern about Google’s Wi-Spying

4:26 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

A significant majority of Americans are troubled by recent revelations that Google’s Street View cars gathered communications from home WiFi networks, and they want stronger legal protection to preserve their online privacy, according to national poll commissioned by Consumer Watchdog.

While Google received an overall 74% favorable rating among tech companies tested, nearly two-thirds of those polled (65%) say the Wi-Spy scandal is one of the things that “worries them most” or a “great deal” with another 20% saying it “raises some concern” when considering Internet issues.

This poll shows that the Wi-Spy scandal is a political minefield for both Google and Congress, and it has the power to scar both. The Internet giant and the government need to come clean about how Google is cooperating with the National Security Agency.

Here are the poll’s topline results and you can learn more about our Google Privacy and accountability project at Inside Google.

Our poll found a solid majority (55%) is also bothered (“one of the most” or “great deal”) by Google’s cooperation with the National Security Agency without saying what information is being shared. Even more voters call for Congressional hearings on “Google’s gathering data from home WiFi networks and its sharing of information with U.S. spy agencies like the National Security Agency, the NSA” (69% favor, 19% oppose).

We have repeatedly called for Congressional hearings focused on Google’s Wi-Spy activities.

The public also shows deep support for a broad range of strong Internet privacy protections. In fact, when asked whether it is “important” to have “more laws that protect the privacy of your personal information” nine in 10 (90%) support this notion. Of these, two thirds (67%) say it is “very important” and there are no real differences based on age — meaning voters under 50, including those ages 18-29, are just as likely to say more privacy laws are needed as those over the age of 70.

When asked specifically what laws they would like, a stronger ability to block tracking of personal information is in strong demand, the poll found. In fact, every proposal that included the word “tracking” receives support levels that were 70% or greater.

A “make me anonymous button” (86% favor, 9% oppose) tops the list, followed by preventing online companies from tracking personal information or web searches without your explicit, written approval (84% favor, 11% oppose).

It’s time for Congress to act on these issues and for Google and the government to deliver real privacy protections like a make me anonymous button or a do not track list. These privacy protections are ripe for ballot initiatives in states like California if Congress and statehouses won’t act.

There was also a warning in the results for members of Congress who fail to act. Voters appear to be in a punishing mood for those who refuse to hold hearings, especially if donations from Google are in their campaign coffers. Nearly six in 10 said they would be less likely to vote for their member of Congress if they took campaign contributions from Google and then refused to hold hearings on the Wi-Spy scandal.

Rep. Rick Boucher, (D-VA) chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, has been dismissive of the need for Wi-Spy hearings. He has received $18,000 from Google’s political action committee, Google Inc. NetPAC, since it was founded in 2006.