Google Street View Privacy Breach Nears $7 Million Settlement

Google's Street View program collected personal data about nearby users via WiFi as its vehicles drove through neighborhoods taking photographs.

Google will pay a $7 million settlement to end a U.S. government probe into its Street View imaging program, which for three years collected personal information on users wirelessly as the Street View vehicles drove around taking photographs.

The proposed settlement was reported March 8 in an article by The Washington Post, based on information from a source familiar with the case.

The deal between Google and the government "would pay $7 million to resolve investigations with more than 30 state attorneys general over its controversial Street View program," according to the article. The settlement could be announced as soon as this week, the report stated.

"The Connecticut attorney general's office, which took the lead on the Street View investigation, declined to comment on reports of a settlement, saying that the probe is 'active and ongoing,'" The Post reported.

The Street View program came under scrutiny both in the United States and in Europe after it was learned that the information was being gathered between 2007 and 2010, according to an earlier eWEEK report. The information included personal data such as passwords, emails, text messages, users Internet usage histories, as well as other WiFi information. According to a 2012 report from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the Street View vehicles had collected more than 200GB of such payload data.

Google officials maintained that the data on the WiFi networks was being used to help Google create better location-based services, after initially denying that payload data had been collected. They later admitted that the Street View cars had collected such personal information, and laid the blame at the feet of a rogue engineer whom they said put that capability into the software on his own accord.

The FCC had earlier fined Google $25,000 for the incidents. In their earlier report, FCC officials said they couldn't determine whether Google had violated any laws, but said that Google had impeded the investigation by not fully cooperating.

In a similar case in France, regulators "found that a Google Street View car had obtained passwords of users and lists of pornographic Websites they were visiting," according to The Washington Post story. "In one case, captured emails made clear that a man and a woman who were married—but not to each other—were attempting to arrange a liaison. Location data could have made their identities known, the regulators said in levying a $142,000 fine."

In a statement, Google spokeswoman Nadia Blagojevic told the The Post that "we work hard to get privacy right at Google. But in this case we didn't, which is why we quickly tightened up our systems to address the issue."

Google had no comment on the report of a pending settlement, the article said.

Google has also recently been the focus of some other government investigations in the United States and Europe regarding antitrust concerns involving Google's search practices and the company's dominant position in search.

Google officials are under investigation in Europe regarding its search engine, which holds more than 60 percent of the search market, with Microsoft's Bing being a distant second. Competitors have claimed that Google works its search algorithms to favor its own products and results over those of others, giving it an unfair advantage in search and Web advertising.

A similar antitrust probe into Google in the United States was resolved in Google's favor in January. Instead of an antitrust prosecution in United States, Google entered into a voluntary agreement with the Federal Trade Commission to change some of its business practices to resolve competitors' complaints.

In the U.S. case, Microsoft led a fight with other technology companies to argue for strong FTC actions against Google to punish it for what they believed were unfair business practices.