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Blumenthal Presses Google on Wi-Spy Data Collection “Debacle”

(Washington, DC) – Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) today pressed Google on the collection and use of data it obtained from millions of consumers across the world during the operation of its Street View program, demanding in a hearing of the Privacy, Technology, and the Law Subcommittee information on the value and potential use of the data collected.

Questioning a company executive, Blumenthal pointed out that patents Google filed as early as 2008 specifically describe a process for pinpointing the locations of wireless routers by intercepting raw data being transmitted by ordinary people over unsecured wireless networks. Additionally, Blumenthal noted that as Google, Apple, and other tech companies build and refine wireless network maps, the issue of data collection, storage, and use “goes to the core of much of what [companies] do with the consent and acquiescence of consumers.”

“For three years, Google intercepted and collected bits of user information, payload data – emails, passwords, browsing history, and other personal information – while driving around taking pictures of people’s homes on the streets in the Street View program. The company first denied that it was collecting this information… and then it denied that it was collecting it intentionally,” Blumenthal said. “In fact, this personal data and the interception and downloading of this personal data is contemplated… by a patent application that’s been submitted by Google to both the U.S. Patent Office and internationally.”

Blumenthal cited two patent applications – one filed in the U.S. in late 2008 and a substantially similar application filed internationally in 2010 – titled “Wireless Network-Based Location Approximation.” The patents describe how “observation/analysis of packets transmitted or received” by wireless routers can be used to pinpoint their locations. Several sections of the patents contemplate examination of “data frames” – or pieces of wireless internet signals containing personal user content – for several purposes, including determining Google’s “confidence in the location” of a wireless router. The patents also contemplate sending “raw data collected” by Google “to a central repository … for processing.”

Blumenthal has previously called for Google to disclose whether the data collected through its Street View program was done so illegally. He reiterated today his call for the company to disclose what it would do with personal information that had been gathered, including its process for disposing of the data. Additionally, Blumenthal has called for consumers to have the option of refusing to have their personal information shared, bought, or sold without their express consent.

The citations for the patent applications are U.S. Patent Application 20100020776 and International Publication No. WO 2010/044872, and are publicly available.

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