A conservative watchdog group is calling for an investigation into whether the Obama administration helped Google dodge legal penalties after committing a major privacy breach.
A fleet of vehicles for Google's Street View mapping service, which takes photographs of cities in more than 30 countries and prowls for Wi-Fi hot-spots, inadvertently collected passwords, e-mail messages and Web addresses carried on unencrypted wireless networks.
Google's collection of private data was first made public in May by German data protection authorities.
Soon afterward, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched an investigation into Google's collection of data on wireless network access points. In late October, the FTC dropped the investigation, stating in a letter that "Google has made assurances to the FTC that the company has not used and will not use any of the payload data collected in any Google product or service, now or in the future."
The National Legal and Policy Center says there is a "growing body of evidence" that the Obama administration's "unusually close relationship with Google has resulted in favoritism towards the company on federal policy issues" and may have resulted in the investigation being dropped.
In a letter to the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the group says "the Commission's summary decision to close its investigation is highly questionable" because the probe raised issues "involving federal eavesdropping and wiretapping laws, Google's credibility and especially what other Street View information the company amassed."
"Less than a week before Google's announcement, President Obama went to the home of Google executive Marissa Mayer for a $30,000-per person Democratic Party fundraiser," the letter continues. "At minimum, we urge the committee to conduct a fair and dispassionate investigation as to any linkage in these three events: the fundraiser, Google's disclosure and the FTC's action."
The new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), has said he plans to conduct hundreds of hearings into executive branch.
"I want seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks," Issa said.
In October, Al Franken (D-MI) warned that Issa would use his subpoena power to conduct a "witch hunt in an effort to bring down the Obama administration."
Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) accused Google of intentionally collecting personal data and said he would probably launch an investigation into the company's practices if he becomes chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the next Congress.
"In that case there appears to have been a conscious effort to collect information," said Barton. "Google said it was inadvertent, but it wasn't just kind of accidentally gathered, and so I do think that's something to look at."
"As we have said before, we are profoundly sorry for having mistakenly collected payload data from unencrypted networks," Google said in a statement. "As soon as we realized what had happened, we stopped collecting all Wi-Fi data from our Street View cars and immediately informed the authorities. As we assured the FTC, which has closed its inquiry, this data has never been used in any Google product and was never intended to be used by Google in any way."