Justice Department Clears Google in Wi-Fi Sniffing Scandal

The Justice Department has cleared Google of wiretapping violations in connection to the company secretly intercepting Americans’ data on unencrypted Wi-Fi routers for two years ending in 2010, Google said.

“The DOJ had access to Google employees, reviewed the key documents, and concluded that it would not pursue a case for violation of the Wiretap Act,” Google wrote in a Thursday filing¬†(.pdf) with the Federal Communications Commission.

The Justice Department declined comment.

If true, the development means that at least three government agencies — the FCC, Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department — found Google committed no wrongdoing in the so-called Street View debacle.

Those outcomes, however, contradict a federal judge who last year ruled the search-and-advertising giant could be held liable for violating federal wiretapping law. The decision by U.S. District Judge James Ware of California green-lighted about a dozen lawsuits seeking damages — a decision that has been stayed pending Google’s appeal.

Google has said it didn’t realize it was sniffing packets of data on unsecured Wi-Fi networks in about a dozen countries between 2008 and 2010 until German privacy authorities began questioning what data Google’s Street View mapping cars were collecting. Google, along with other companies, use databases of Wi-Fi networks and their locations to augment or replace GPS when attempting to figure out the location of a computer or mobile device.

In Google’s letter to the FCC, it said it would pay a $25,000 FCC fine, levied two weeks ago, to settle the agency’s claims that Google stonewalled the commission’s Streetview investigation. Google denied wrongdoing, but agreed to pay “in order to put this investigation behind it.”

Google’s letter to the FCC said the Justice Department notified Google in May that it had closed its investigation.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center on Friday filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Justice Department demanding (.pdf) the May letter the Justice Department sent to Google allegedly clearing it of wrongdoing.

The FCC, meanwhile, found that Google “collected and stored encrypted communications sent over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks,” but the FCC found no evidence that Google accessed that data.

Google has said the affair was a “mistake.” The FCC said the hijacked data included “names, addresses, telephone numbers, URL’s, passwords, e-mail, text messages, medical records, video and audio files, and other information from internet users in the United States.”

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission had opened and closed an inquiry in 2010 without taking any action against Google in connection to the Streetview affair.

According to the Wiretap Act, amended in 1986, it’s not considered wiretapping “to intercept or access an electronic communication made through an electronic communication system that is configured so that such electronic communication is readily accessible to the general public.” But Judge Ware said that interpretation did not apply to open, unencrypted Wi-Fi networks and instead applied only to “traditional radio services” like police scanners.

Photo: dspain/Flickr