With Eyes (and Other Data Receptors) Open Wide

In a storm of reporting, hundreds of articles published online and in print over the past couple of days, have focused attention on a story that touched on issues both photographic and archival. European privacy regulators and advocates have revealed that Google, as it sent out cars with 360 degree cameras mounted on their roofs to make photographic images of urban centers for it’s Google Street View application, was also collecting and archiving bits of private data—picked up by recording devices mounted in the cars—from unencrypted residential wireless networks in the areas being photographed.

Google Street View Car in Bristol, by Byrion Smith, Creative Commons: Attribution 2.0.

While early reports of this problem have focused on the angry reactions Irish, then German, then British authorities and privacy-guardians, the problem turns out to be more widespread than was initially thought. A blog post at PC World suggests that this scooping up of information has been taking place in at least thirty countries.

Google—saying this data collection was inadvertent and the result of a programming error—apologized and said it has not made any use of this information. A post on The Official Google Blog, explains that an experimental piece of software code, developed in 2006 was unintentionally involved, sampling “all categories of publicly broadcast WiFi data.” Google’s armada of camera-equipped Street View cars somehow still had that code included in the software being used. Predictably, Google says, “Maintaining people’s trust is crucial to everything we do, and in this case we fell short.” So now the company is asking for a third party review of the software in issue, and has stopped the Street View cars from collecting WiFi network data entirely.

Google Street View of Chicago, by Sonny SideUp, Creative Commons: Attribution 2.0.

All’s well that ends well? Maybe not. In Germany, as described in a recent New York Times article Google’s collection of data (which might include, for example, lists of websites being viewed by people in the area of the cars, or snippets of their emails) violates privacy law and officials are considering next steps. Early in May, the German Parliament began to discuss a law that would fine Google €50,000 euros, or around $60,000 for each time it failed to remove images of the personal property of a citizen who requested to be exempted from Street View. Stay tuned.

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