Google has been fined 145,000 Euros — $189,000 — by officials in Germany for alleged privacy breaches in the country. According to German data protection agencies, Google was collecting unauthorized personal data while aggregating for of one of the company’s more popular and ubiquitous internet services,Google Maps.
Let’s be clear, the Google Maps tool is not yo’ Daddy’s map. As an interactive web-based geography utility, the service helps users pinpoint locations, get travel directions, and explore rich 3D environments from all over the world, using satellite and Mercator projection technologies. To provide all of this, Google must deploy its resources to gather an astounding amount of information and data, and in so doing has – unintentionally, they claim — breached data privacy in Germany. The company has admitted wrong doing and has “tightened up [their] systems to address the issue,” but how common an occurrence is this?
One of the more interesting features in Google Maps is the amazing “Street View”, which allows users to zoom in and view street-level imagery of locations, on their home computers or mobile devices. These images are made possible by Google’s roving street view cars which collects WiFi data and takes 360 degree images of its surroundings. Street View had been the center of controversy before in Germany, when residents could see their cars’ license plate numbers displayed prominently on the map system. Perhaps less serious, Street View also created a buzz when it captured what looked like an Australian couple … having naughty public relations.
The current controversy has been considered by Hamburg, Germany authorities to be one of the biggest privacy violations to ever come to light. From 2008 to 2010 any unprotected WiFi networks in the vicinity of Google Street View cars have been at risk with unauthorized data gathered including the WiFi users’ SSIDs (service set identifiers), MAC addresses, and personal payload data. However, Google’s full cooperation in deleting all offensive data, turning over their hard drives, reforming their internal systems and admitting fault on the issue have helped the perception of the problem as an act of negligence and not malicious in its intent.
Google reported $14 billion in revenue for the first quarter of 2013 and they do not intend to appeal the $189,000 fine. That number is nearly the maximum allowable under Germany’s Federal Data Protection Act, and the German regulators themselves have argued that it is an inadequate penalty to carry out the intended deterrence effect on future corporate violators. Reforms are currently being considered, which could result in fines of as much as 2% of a company’s annual turnover.