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Google Fined for Impeding Investigation Into Why 'Street View' Project Collected Personal Data


You may remember when it was revealed Google's Street View cars were collecting more than just images and GPS coordinates. It was found in 2010 the company had "accidentally" sopped up personal data via wireless networks in 30 countries. For this infraction, the Federal Communications Commission launched an investigation and found the collection of this info wasn't necessarily illegal. Still, the company has now been fined for deliberately impeding the investigation.

The New York Times considers the issuing of this fine and "exasperated tone" in the FCC's report as a "contrast" to its previous stance on accepting Google's explanation that the company was "mortified" it had been accidentally collecting private data. The Times has more from the FCC's report:

“Although a world leader in digital search capability, Google took the position that searching its employees’ e-mail ‘would be a time-consuming and burdensome task,’ ” the report said. The commission also noted that Google stymied its efforts to learn more about the data collection because its main architect, an engineer who was not identified, had invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

When the commission asked Google to identify those responsible for the program, Google “unilaterally determined that to do so would ‘serve no useful purpose,’ ” according to the F.C.C. report.

For reasons such as these, the FCC felt it appropriate to hit Google with a $25,000 fine for violating the Communications Act of 1934, even though it was ultimately determined Google's accidental collection of the data was not illegal because the information was not encrypted. The investigation also determined that no data collected was misused. The Times reports that Canada and some European regulators in their own investigations found some of the information collected included passwords, full emails and instant messages.

While Google's spokesperson has said the company "worked in good faith to answer the FCC's questions" and it is pleased to have the investigation end, PC World is not one to give up on questioning the company just yet. It thinks this lack of compliance poses the still valid question, "What is Google hiding?"

Consumers and advocacy groups have often criticized Google's seemingly insatiable appetite for personal information, such as its recent consolidation of its privacy policies so as to have a better view into user behaviors and preferences. Because of the amount of attention those privacy concerns have garnered, you'd think a policy of transparency on Google's part would bode well with those who have doubts about whether or not the company can be trusted with increasing amounts of personal data.

Even if Google's snooping was a mistake, and even if it had nothing to hide, a $25,000 fine for not cooperating with this investigation seems a bit small.

The Times reports chief of the FCC's enforcement bureau Michele Ellison saying the fine was appropriate based on the evidence. The Times notes in Europe the company was fined $140,000 for privacy violations in its Street View project.

USA Today (via Gizmodo) reports Google can appeal this fine. Ellison stated this case is an opportunity to educate the public on the vulnerabilities of unencrypted wireless networks.

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