EPIC v. FTC (Google Street View)

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Background

In May 2010, Google announced that its Street View vehicles had collected a vast amount of Wi-Fi data. Google had originally admitted to collecting fragments of Wi-Fi data, but was forced to admit that it had collected more than just fragments. Google conceded that it gathered MAC addresses (the unique device ID for Wi-Fi hotspots) and network SSIDs (the user-assigned network ID name) tied to location information for private wireless networks. Google also admitted that it intercepted and stored Wi-Fi transmission data, stating that “in some instances entire emails and URLs were captured, as well as passwords.”

After a number of countries began investigations, Google ended its illegal collection of Wi-Fi data transmissions. Shortly after Google’s announcement in May 2010, members of Congress asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google's collection of Wi-Fi data. EPIC also urged the Commission to undertake an investigation of Google’s practices and highlighted concerns regarding potential violations of the Wiretap Act.

Despite the calls by Congress and organizations like EPIC to investigate Google, the FTC ended its investigation of Google in October 2010 without addressing concerns over Google’s illegal collection of Wi-Fi data. FTC Director David Vladeck mentioned these concerns in a letter to Google, but reasoned that Google had made “assurances” to the FTC that it will not collect payload data in the future. Other countries conducted investigations and penalized Google for its illegal Wi-Fi data collection.

In November 2010, EPIC submitted a FOIA request to the FTC to uncover why the Street View investigation was prematurely abandoned. EPIC requested the following records in its FOIA request:

  1. All records concerning the FTC's inquiry into Google Street View.
  2. All records concerning communications between the FTC Chairman and any former Google employees now working in the White House (including, but not limited to, Andrew McLaughlin), regarding the FTC's investigation of Google Cloud Computing services, Google Buzz, or Google Street View.

The FTC acknowledged receipt of EPIC’s request but did not make a substantive determination or produce any responsive documents. EPIC thus filed an administrative appeal in December 2010, appealing the FTC’s failure to make a timely determination. In January 2011, the FTC partially responded to EPIC’s request. The Commission declared that it had found 260 pages of responsive records but invoked FOIA exemptions to withhold seventy-seven pages in full and portions of other pages.

The FTC released documents incrementally in three responses but has not yet provided the final production of documents. Several of the agency records that EPIC received from the Commission reference FTC briefings of Congressional members and staff regarding Google’s collection of Wi-Fi data, but the FTC withheld a document referenced as an “outline for wifi briefing” from EPIC. In documents obtained by EPIC, a senior attorney with the Federal Trade Commission describes the Google WiFi investigation as a "wasted summer" and hopes that a Hill briefing on Google WiFi "won't be too much of a time suck."

Between February and March 2011, EPIC filed administrative appeals challenging each of the FTC’s three responses. The FTC denied each of the appeals. EPIC brought a complaint against the FTC for wrongful withholding of agency records. Through this lawsuit, EPIC is seeking release of all responsive agency records regarding the Commission’s briefings to Congress and others outside of the FTC in order to uncover why the investigation of Google’s Wi-Fi data collection was terminated without addressing the serious issues that were raised.

Legal Documents

EPIC v. The Federal Trade Commission, Case No. 1:11-CV-00881 (D.D.C. filed May 12, 2011)

Freedom of Information Act Documents

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