Google’s Street View Closure: A Long and Winding Road

The U.S. Federal Communication Commission may have settled for a gentle slap to Google’s wrist after investigating alleged violations of the federal Wiretrap Act via its Street View program, but Google’s legal woes stemming from that issue are far from over.

Europe reportedly is preparing to look at allegations that Google employees may have known the service would collect personal information. Also, Google is not necessarily done with the U.S. government.

The Street View Story

Google is being investigated for many privacy issues at the moment. This particular case stems from its global Street View project launched in 2007, which captured images via a fleet of specially equipped vehicles including tricycles and snowmobiles.

In 2010, it was found that these vehicles were also collecting information from unprotected WiFi systems as they rolled by homes and offices.

The FCC’s barely there sanction — it fined Google US$25,000 — at first blush appeared to be a vindication of Google, which maintained it didn’t realize its vehicles were collecting the information.

The agency found that the search engine giant had not violated any U.S. laws. The fine was for alleged foot-dragging on the part of Google during the investigation. Google has denied that claim.

The FCC was only investigating a certain aspect of what Google did, explained Peter S. Vogel, a partner with Gardere Wynne Sewell.

“It looked at whether Google violated U.S. laws by accessing people’s data through their unprotected WiFi networks as its trucks drove by. That is not against the wiretap law,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Other Avenues

However, it is still debatable whether Google violated privacy laws in the U.S. with this program, Vogel said — especially in light of new information that recently became public, which suggests Google may have known more about the data collection activities than it has said.

Google claimed that the data collection was inadvertent, due to the actions of a single engineer.

At the end of last month, though, an uncensored version of an FCC report came to light, and it was widely publicized that the engineer had informed other team members about the code that collected the information, and later gave the entire Street View team a report on it.

An investigation of this issue would fall to the Federal Trade Commission, Vogel said, which reportedly is considering another privacy-related issue involving Google at the moment: whether to fine it for bypassing user privacy settings in Apple’s Safari Web browser.

Google is also facing a potential threat in another front in the U.S.: Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has called for an investigation of Google, based on these reports.

The EU Steps In

Then there is the European Union, which has already investigated Google extensively on this subject. It too reportedly is concerned about the allegations that the entire Street View team was aware of the data collection activities.

The Article 29 Data Protection Working Party, which represents the 27 countries in the European Union, is expected to meet as soon as next week on this issue, an unnamed EU press officer told Bloomberg.

There is a likely silver lining to this mess, said Marilyn Prosch, an associate professor at W.P. Carey School of Business. Thanks to the FCC’s revelations, international regulators will hopefully push Google to ingrain in their software developers the concept of engaging in privacy by design — or privacy by redesign, in this case.

“This case points to the need for due diligence by organizations to train engineers on privacy requirements and documenting that the requirements have been met before going to market,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

Google did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

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