Internet search giant Google has agreed to a settlement, including a $7 million payout, with a group of states in a case involving privacy complaints. The complaints stem from Google’s street view cars, which travel the roads taking 360-degree pictures as well as the location of wireless hotspots and cell phone towers. They apparently also picked up private data from unencrypted wireless networks as they traveled.

In May of 2010 Google admitted in a blog post that it had collected private data, including information like passwords and emails. There, Google stated that collecting the information was a mistake and that Google never wanted or used the information. “The engineering team at Google works hard to earn your trust — and we are acutely aware that we failed badly, here,” the blog post stated. “We are profoundly sorry for this error and are determined to learn all the lessons we can from our mistake.”Google Street View car

For the current settlement, in addition to the $7 million payment, Google is also required to delete the private information, institute an employee education program about privacy, and sponsor a national public service campaign focused on protecting private information. Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen stated, “The importance of this agreement goes beyond financial terms. Consumers have a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

For some, though, the amount of the settlement was not enough. Steve Pociask, the president of the American Consumer Institute, said, “With revenue of $100 million a day, the fine is just a drop in the bucket and not enough to deter bad behavior.” “Consumers are growing tired of seeing Google apologize time and time again, pay a small fine and make vague promises in settlements with one agency or another, only later to engage in the same behavior.” It is perhaps worth noting that Google recently announced that its executive chairman Eric Schmidt will be receiving a bonus of $6 million for his performance last year.

In 2010 both the FTC and the FCC began investigating Google. However, neither investigation led to significant further action. The FCC ultimately found that Google did not violate the law, although they did levy a $25,000 fine on Google for obstructing the investigation. Google still faces private lawsuits related to the Street View data collection.

Do you think the settlement is reasonable? Do you think Google really collected the information by mistake?


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6 Responses to Google Settles Street View Privacy Case

  1. KM says:

    A $7 million settlement is not going to deter Google from any kind of behavior (given his bonus, Schmidt could pay that out of his personal bank account). And from what I understand, the settlement is being split among 38 states that participated in the investigation–so the settlement is unlikely to offer any real compensation, either. I agree with Steve Pociask–what’s keeping Google from doing something like this again? Certainly not $7 million… I’m interested in why a group of state’s brought this action and whether a class of individuals might have better success in securing a larger settlement that might actually affect Google’s behavior.

  2. Kendall Short says:

    I think this raises some of the same issues Tim Van Hal wrote about in his Note on geolocation data and potential abuses. I agree with Tim’s proposal that if people actually do suffer harm there should be some private remedy, perhaps in a class action, but it may not be for the FTC and FCC to try to regulate broadly if there is in fact no real harm done, or, as RL pointed out, no laws violated.

  3. R.L. Florance says:

    I agree with Mike on this one. There doesn’t seem to be a great harm here, and unless there was some evidence of Google actually using those emails and passwords, I don’t think Google should be punished for it. I also think the fact that the FCC found that Google did not violate any laws telling.

    • Will says:

      I think this instance was probably an accident, but there are serious concerns with the information Google gathers about people in other contexts. I think it makes sense to apply a little more scrutiny to a company known for pushing the line on privacy rights.

      • Mike says:

        Google’s entire business model is based on gathering people’s information. They say this was a mistake to collect extra information? Seems a little fishy to me.

  4. Mike Silliman says:

    While the settlement is low, I think it is proportional to the harm. I find it unlikely that this was an intentional invasion of privacy by Google. It seems that the most likely use of this data is to determine the relative strengths of WiFi networks. I highly doubt Google was interested in the passwords and emails — they already know our deepest darkest secrets anyway.

    Plus, c’mon people, this is 2012. There is no excuse for running around with an unsecured network.