Street View Scandal: Google to Pay 38 States $7 Million

The Google Street View lawsuit came to a close Tuesday by settling to pay a divided $7 million dollars to 38 states that sued over the practice of Google’s team, whose Street View vehicles secretly collected personal information up on Wi-Fi networks.

There were no explicit results from the FCC pointing that Google violated the Federal Wiretap Statute. And really, $7 million is nothing to a powerhouse like Google Inc., whose net worth comes out to $200 billion dollars. Essentially, Google got off easy with a situation we don’t know what could have escalated to (using said data for advertising purposes, most likely) if it weren't for the fact that they got caught.

The controversy began in 2007, when Street View was first introduced. Special vehicles were sent out in areas within the U.S. that snapped pictures of buildings, houses, and more. After the photos are taken, technology weaves the images together to make a 360-degree panorama that then can be accessed on Google Maps. Over time, the countries where Google “mapped” expanded outside of North America. However, while on their initial runs to collect pictures, information ranging from e-mail addresses, to websites visited and passwords were also obtained through unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Google said it had “been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open networks” but later admitted that there were several people in the know that data was being collected with the Street View technology. The project’s head engineer had been intentionally writing code to log personal data.

Ironically, it wasn't the U.S. that busted Google — it was Germany. In 2010, German officials wanted access to the data Google’s street cars picked up on and as soon as they stumbled onto how much Google had, reported the incorporation to the FTC and FCC. An investigation followed, first launched by the FTC in 2012. With an apology and deletion promises, Google was let off the hook. On the same day FTC declared this, the FCC launched its own investigation — but was met with an interesting roadblock. The Google engineer heading the project channeled the Fifth Amendment and refused to participate, something noted in the FCC’s interim report concerning the case.

As a result, the FCC fined Google $25,000 for obstruction, but no law violation. U.S. states and the European Union (EU), on the other hand, continued to push on in the aftermath of breached privacy. The EU and Google hope to find a solution to an antitrust probe brought on by the EU this summer. In the meanwhile 38 offended states are receiving a cool piece of that $7 million dollar settlement — in addition to Google having to comply with a “feel good” campaign on why privacy invasion is Not Good. Out of all the scenarios Google could have faced with its Street View drama, this is the happier end of the spectrum, though I doubt Google has learned a lesson. At all. 

Just last year they did have to settle with a $22.5 million agreement concerning planted cookies in Apple’s Safari web browser — the largest civil penalty ever dished by the FTC. In an unrelated stint, the FTC settled (without a fine) on an antitrust investigation looking into whether or not Google was guilty of stifling its competition. Still, the FTC says it will follow continue Google’s business practices closely.

So while law apparently says that Google is not guilty of intrusion with Street View, the fact that Google kind of was and was able to pay its way out of harsher penalties that might have left a more severe message says a lot about the notion of privacy on the Internet. In short — if you don't want to risk a third party getting their hands on your info stay away. We really can't trust Google or other online arenas alike to play nice.