Google’s Street View Cars Capture More Than Just Pictures

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What information has Google captured in your area?

Google maps with street-view is indispensable when I need to find the nearest….anything, complete with directions.  But convenience comes at the price of some serious creeping.

Earlier this month, The Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) issued Google with a $25,000 fine for obstruction of justice. The obstruction fine stems from a 2010 investigation, launched when Google admitted to accidentally downloading personal data while collecting pictures for Google Maps.

During this three-year endeavor, you might have witnessed a Google Car driving around your neighborhood or on your daily commute. And, along with pictures of streets and buildings, those cars were collecting countless amounts of personal information: everything from saucy text messages to personal finances.

While Google at first maintained that the company was only collecting images, it was later revealed that as the cars drove by, they were collecting data about the people in the homes and buildings they passed.

When the F.C.C. begin the investigation, the commission argued to charge Google with a violation under the Wiretap Act or the Communications Act. But, the F.C.C. could not pin Google on any crimes because of a lack of evidence as to how Google used the gathered information.

The engineer who would have the necessary information to determine if a violation to either of the acts occurred, has exercised his Fifth Amendment rights not to self-incriminate. And when the F.C.C. inquired with Google about the information that was collected, Google apparently “willfully and repeatedly” violated Commission orders to produce the information required.

So, while the F.C.C. was not able to charge Google under the Communications Act or the Wiretap Act, Google’s obstruction brought about the $25,000 fine. But Google is not out of the woods yet. Lawyers in Europe are still bringing criminal charges against the company.

This story raises more questions about the rules regarding invasions of privacy by a public company. As we explained in relation to employers asking for Facebook login credentials, private companies are not accountable under the Fourth Amendment.

Additionally, a $25,000 fine is like pocket change for a company like Google. Perhaps a higher fine would deter Google and its executives from withholding information.

What are your thoughts? Does a $25,000 fine even matter to Google?  Is this another example of corporate numbness to privacy rights? And what are the implications of companies being able to pick up personal data by just taking a Sunday afternoon drive?

UPDATE: Until last week, Google had maintained that the payload data information collected during their street view car drives was accidental. But then Google admitted that the payload data was collected by one rogue employee. This engineer had seemingly designed his own code unbeknownst to everyone else at Google. The payload data collecting code went through numerous edits by others, and somehow made it all the way to the final code used in the street view cars. Is this alibi believable or not? Apparently, it doesn’t matter. The FCC said it will not impose any type of charge because there are no laws prohibiting what Google did. Sounds like it’s time for some new legislation…

About Kira O'Connor

Kira graduated from of U.C. Berkeley with a degree Mass Communications and Media Studies and will graduate from the University of Oregon School of Law in May 2012. Kira has worked in entertainment and media since high school, and during college she worked at Universal Music Group and the Cal Berkeley television station. In law school, her focus has been on sports, entertainment, and intellectual property law. When her face isn’t buried in case law, she enjoys triathlons, adoring baby animals, and taking jumping pictures. Follow her on Twitter @kiraoconnor
Posted in: Privacy, Technology