Since 2007, Google Street View — a feature offered through Google Maps and Google Earth — has provided panoramic views of streets all over the world. Many Internet users have utilized Street View at one point or another. The technology can be a useful tool for scoping out a particular neighborhood you’re thinking about renting in, or perhaps satisfying the need to see what Donald Trump’s mansion looks like. There is even a website dedicated to the more amusing snapshots caught by the Google Street View cams.

Privacy advocates have objected to Street View since its inception — particularly the display of individual faces, car license plates, etc. For example, John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog has repeatedly criticized Google’s practices, asserting that “[Google’s] computer engineers run amok, push the envelope, and gather whatever data they can until their fingers are caught in the cookie jar.”

A new controversy recently emerged when Google began its plan to offer street mapping in Germany. German officials discovered that Google has been retrieving and storing information derived from (unsecured) private WIFI networks. Specifically, Street View cars were intentionally collecting SSID data (the name given to a particular WIFI network) and MAC addresses (a unique identification number associated with each router). Kyle Oberbeck, a spokesman for Google, asserted that “[w]hat [Google] is doing is totally legal and is being done by other companies around the world and in Germany,” and noted that network identification information is in the public domain in Germany and other countries.

At first, Google assured the public that it did not collect any “payload data” – such as the content of emails sent over WIFI networks. On May 14th, however, Google issued a clarification admitting that the Street View cars had “mistakenly” collected samples of payload data over the past three years. According to the company a software glitch was responsible for the inadvertent collection of a “minimal amount” (about 600 GB) of payload data.

This new revelation raises questions about whether Google has violated federal wiretap laws, which prohibit the interception of private electronic communications. To be criminally liable under these laws, however, Google must have the requisite intent to collect or use the intercepted data. According to Jennifer Granick, a staff attorney with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, this intent requirement is strict. Although Google may still be subject to criminal investigation, “saying it’s an accident … may be a good enough excuse to get them out of the wiretap liability,” Granick noted.

Google has promised to seek out an independent audit of the defective software and conduct an internal review of company procedures aimed at avoiding similar breaches of privacy in the future. Privacy advocates, however, have vehemently objected to the idea of a third-party audit. Consumer Watchdog called for the FTC to intervene, arguing that, “[a third-party audit] would be like getting to pick and pay the referees in a championship basketball game. This investigation must be done by a regulatory authority capable of imposing real sanctions.”

No formal criminal investigation has been announced. Google has since issued a formal apology and has deleted the offending data. In the meantime, Street View Cars will no longer be any collecting WIFI network information on their quest to snapshot streets around the globe.

– Lacey R. Logsdon

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