Google (GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin says his company "screwed up" by improperly collecting WiFi data as its "Street View" vehicles canvassed neighborhoods around the world taking photographs for Google Maps.
But Brin's mea culpa may not damp the outrage spreading from Europe to the U.S. over the breach. Even as he spoke, two U.S. lawmakers wrote the Federal Trade Commission asking whether Google's actions were illegal. And Reuters reported that the Dept. of Justice is also "interested" in looking into the matter.
"We Screwed Up"
Speaking at a Google developer conference in San Francisco Wednesday, Brin used blunt terms to address the growing controversy, which erupted after Google said it had mistakenly collected users' browsing activity over unsecured WiFi networks.
"We screwed up, and I'm not making excuses about it," Brin said, according to multiplereports. "Trust is very important to us, and we're going to do everything we can to preserve it."
"We do have a lot of internal controls in place, but obviously they didn't prevent this error from occurring," Brin said, according to ZDNet. "We are putting more internal controls in place and bringing in third parties to work on this issue, as well."
Lawmakers Call For FTC Probe
Meanwhile, two influential lawmakers, Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, and Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, wrote to the FTC on Wednesday asking the agency to determine whether Google's actions violated the law or consumer protection rules. The two lawmakers are co-chairmen of the House Privacy Caucus.
"Are Google's actions illegal under federal law?" the lawmakers asked in the letter, which included other pointed questions such as, "Do Google's actions form the basis of an unfair or deceptive act or practice that constitutes harm to consumers?"
An FTC spokesperson declined to comment. A Google spokesperson would only say, "We're continuing to talk to the relevant authorities to answer their questions and concerns."
Experts: Don't Destroy Potential Evidence
The possibility that Google's "war driving" may have violated the law heightens the scrutiny of the data Google collected, which could be used as evidence in any legal proceeding. Google has already begun destroying the data -- in some cases at the behest of governments, including Britain's -- but privacy experts told DailyFinance this week that Google should preserve the data and turn it over at government request.
"The problem here is that there are criminal laws at issue, and there is a real question as to whether Google violated those laws," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "If it did, the evidence is in the information Google collected. Google has tried to minimize the data it collected, calling it snippets or fragments. But that's a determination that needs to be made by a third party, possibly a prosecutor."
In their letter, Reps. Barton and Markey asked the FTC to answer the following questions:
"Is the Federal Trade Commission investigating this matter?
"What is the commission's understanding of the type and nature of information collected, and how is the captured data stored? Who had access to this data?
"Do Google's data collection practices with respect to Wi-Fi networks violate the public's reasonable expectation of privacy? Did Google collect passwords associated with Internet usage by consumers?
"Do Google's actions form the basis of an unfair or deceptive act or practice that constitutes harm to consumers? Please explain your response.
"Are Google's actions illegal under federal law? If these allegations warrant commission action, does the commission believe it currently has authority to take necessary action? If not, please describe legislative language you would recommend to enable the commission to act appropriately."