Google Street View Investigation by U.S. Declared Closed

Google Inc. said federal prosecutors closed an investigation last May into the company’s use of custom-equipped autos to collect wireless data in its Street View project.

The U.S. Justice Department concluded last year that “it would not pursue a case for violation of the Wiretap Act,” Google said yesterday in a filing with the Federal Communications Commission.

The commission proposed on April 13 to fine Google $25,000 for delaying the agency’s probe into Street View, which sends cars to photograph buildings and homes in neighborhoods. The company said yesterday that it acted in good faith and will pay the FCC’s penalty to conclude the inquiry.

“Google has cooperated fully with investigations around the globe,” the Mountain View, California-based company said in the filing.

“In promising to pay the bureau’s penalty, the company has rightly admitted wrongdoing,” Tammy Sun, an FCC spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “Going forward, important concerns about the privacy of unencrypted Wi-Fi communications remain.”

Alisa Finelli, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Google Delayed Inquiry

The FCC found Google had delayed its inquiry into data collected with custom-equipped cars that cruised streets and took in wireless streams from homes and businesses.

For three years starting in May 2007, the cars collected content from wireless networks that wasn’t needed for that project, according to the FCC’s April 13 findings. Google gathered e-mail and text messages, passwords, Internet-usage history and “other highly sensitive personal information,” the FCC said.

Google said yesterday it “grounded” its Street View cars upon learning of the unwanted data collection and has cooperated with investigations.

Google, owner of the largest Internet search engine, has come under mounting scrutiny from regulators over how it handles information.

In October 2010, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission said it ended its investigation of Street View after the company said it would improve privacy safeguards. Last year, Google agreed to 20 years of independent privacy audits to settle claims with the FTC that it deceived users and violated its own privacy policies with the Buzz social network. Yesterday the FTC said it has hired Beth Wilkinson, former general counsel of Fannie Mae, to run its antitrust investigation of Google.

‘Thorough Examination’

The FCC probe followed the trade commission closing its Street View investigation and the Justice Department “conducted and long ago completed its own thorough examination of the facts,” Google said in yesterday’s FCC filing.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, which requested the FCC investigation, isn’t satisfied and will seek information from the Justice Department, Marc Rotenberg, executive director the Washington-based policy group that focuses on consumer privacy issues, said in an interview.

“We don’t know what the Department of Justice has determined,” Rotenberg said. The Justice Department may have a “very different” characterization, he said.

“Google downloaded the private communications of millions of users with Wi-Fi routers in the United States,” Rotenberg said. “That is not permissible under the federal wiretap act. It can’t be.”

The FCC said April 13 that it had decided not to penalize Google for the Street View activities, with the penalty assessed for not cooperating in the investigation. Communications and wiretap law were unclear and a Google worker the agency identified as “Engineer Doe” had declined to testify, the FCC said.

The FCC didn’t repeat an initial request to speak to Engineer Doe once Google reported that the worker asserted his constitutional right not to cooperate, the company said.

Google shares rose 0.9 percent to $615.47 yesterday at the New York close. They’re down 4.7 percent this year.