Google Street View Program Raises International Ire

Published December 21, 2010

Ongoing revelations about Google’s privacy practices are raising more questions about whether the company illegally collected information without consent and whether its close relationship to the United States’ government is garnering the company special consideration.
In May 2007, Google Street View was launched, and camera-equipped cars toured public streets, taking images to be assembled into photographic maps of neighborhoods. The project currently features street views of more than 30 nations. Privacy advocates quickly objected because zooming in on the street shots showed highly personal moments such as people entering a strip club or an abortion clinic. But Google prevailed by maintaining all photos were taken from public property.

“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” Google CEO Eric Schmidt remarked in The Huffington Post in 2009.

Arguments for personal privacy outside one’s home take several forms. Utilitarian reasons include separating business and pleasure, preventing identity theft, fear of an enemy or criminal ‘using’ data, and simple modesty. Civil liberties advocates cite Fourth Amendment protections “of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” protections that are traditional bulwarks against an intruding state, although Google is a private company.

Collected Info Without Consent

In April 23, 2010, privacy officials in Germany accused Google of capturing private information from WiFi networks, citing evidence Street View cars were collecting passwords, e-mails, and other personal data transmitted over wireless networks from unsuspecting people. Google denied the charge of collecting ‘payload’ (that is, personal) information.

German authorities subsequently demanded an audit of Google’s data, whereupon Google disclosed it had “inadvertently” collected bits and pieces of payload data since 2007. The company immediately ceased doing so within Germany.

In the summer of 2010, a report from Canadian privacy officials revealed data collected by Google included full emails and passwords, usernames, home addresses, and phone numbers. In October the company admitted the quantity and completeness of data was greater than previously stated. Again, Google insisted the info-gathering, conducted internationally over a period of two to three years, was inadvertent, and it promised to delete the data.

‘Slap on the Wrist’
Several national governments are questioning Google’s innocence. The Czech Republic has banned Google from taking more images, and Germany and Italy require opt-out measures for people from the mapping process. French authorities have pulled over Street View cars to ensure they no longer collect personal data. Britain recently concluded Google had violated United Kingdom privacy law. T the European Union announced plans to enact stronger Internet rules.

Compared to their European counterparts, U.S. authorities have been muted. The Federal Trade Commission closed its Street Car investigation this past October after Google promised to delete information collected by Street Cars, designate a director of privacy, and providing enhanced privacy training for employees, Speculation abounds regarding why the FTC ceased its investigation.

The National Legal and Policy Center claims Google was let off with a wrist-slap because of close ties to the Obama administration. The NLPC points to Google CEO Schmidt’s endorsement of Obama in 2008, several former Google employees currently employed by the administration, and a $30,000 per person fundraiser for Obama held by Google executive Marissa Mayer at her home shortly before the investigation closed.

Government Connections?

Others point to Google’s explicit partnerships with the federal government. The July 28, 2010 issue of Wired magazine, for example, featured a story linking Google and Central Intelligence Agency Web monitoring activity.

The Federal Communications Commission is currently examining whether Google violated the Federal Wiretap Act and the Communications Act by intercepting radio communications without authorization. In addition, the Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives—now under Republican control—may investigate whether the FTC granted special considerations to Google.

Schmidt has exacerbated the tension with certain public comments. He recently retracted a remark made during an October CNN appearance in which he claimed people who disliked being included in Google’s mapping should simply move.

Wendy McElroy
([email protected]) writes from Ontario, Canada.