With Street View, Google cast its data net too wide

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Another week, another set of curbs on data gathering – and another indication of the cost of getting it wrong in this industry.

On Monday, the French data privacy regulator CNIL levied a €100,000 fine on Google for the unwitting collection of unencrypted data from wi-fi connections by its Street View cars, which have been traversing continents photographing their streets. The Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK has already found Google in breach of the Data Protection Act for its lapse, but issued no fine.

As well as the pictures it set out to gather, the Google dragnet also hauled in data from personal networks including passwords, emails and bank details.

The cost Google will be worried about is not the relatively meagre sum it has been charged – even though it is a record fine from the French regulator, which has had these powers since 2004. More damaging is the loss of trust from consumers that will inevitably follow, and that will reflect badly on the industry too.

The fine was not handed down solely for the collection of the data, but also for the “economic advantage” that CNIL says Google gained from it. According to the regulator, the company “has not refrained from using the data identifying wi-fi access points of individuals without their knowledge”, referring to the Google Latitude service, which allows users to locate others via wi-fi connections.

Street View was already controversial before the revelation of this error. The complaints ranged from the service helping burglars choose their targets to the prospect of catching individuals in uncompromising positions.

CNIL’s ruling is of a different order of magnitude because it casts aspersions on Google’s motives, rather than just calling it careless. Google can still appeal, but hearing the judgment, people will now be suspicious of any data-driven project the brand undertakes.

Many of the more trivial worries about Street View will have been overblown, since most of the information it makes available is by its nature already public – the public walk the streets every day, unencumbered. But this is an ambitious project handling huge amounts of data, and one failure to blur a face or number plate is still too many.

Similarly, while the wi-fi data Google trapped in its net was snagged unintentionally, it is a perilous catch to bring in, and had to be dealt with delicately rather than being immediately thrown overboard. Only now the French investigation is complete can it be deleted. Google had already stopped collecting the data once it realised the error.

It is a shame that Street View has been the cause of so much concern, because it is so undeniably useful – especially if you are a journalist looking for an office you have never visited, to interview a person whose number you have forgotten to bring. It helps to know in advance what you are looking for.

It remains to be seen whether Google earns more good will in the long term from providing such a worthwhile service than the suspicion it will garner from its lax approach to data gathering.

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