This week, Google Inc. settled a sprawling privacy infringement case with authorities in 38 U.S. states, paying a record $7-million (U.S.) in the process. The case stems from data the company collected as part of its Street View service. While many people know the tool for its street-level images of various cities, the way Google collected some of the data has run afoul of privacy laws in many countries. That’s in large part because, while the company was hiring cars and cameras to photograph streets, its data-collection tools were also storing all manner of data from unsecured WiFi networks. The resulting cases have raised several questions about how Google runs one of its most popular services.
A Google maps Street View camera car travels on Spadina Avenue in Toronto, April 13, 2012.Randall Moore
How does Street View work?
Essentially, Google hires a fleet of vehicles to drive around cities, taking pictures. Atop each vehicle is a mounted camera that automatically documents the surrounding area. The images are then stitched together to form a 360-degree, street-level view. Since the project began in 2007, Google has documented some 8,000 kilometres of road in roughly 3,000 cities across 48 countries. The feature has become hugely popular, helping Google differentiate its maps product from myriad competitors. In recent years, the company has tried to extend Street View inside, mapping the interiors of businesses and buildings.
A man rides a Google Street View bicycle that is mapping the area in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut on Aug. 23, 2012.Chris Wattie
What kind of data does Google collect?
Today, the company goes to great pains to collect images only from its Street View cameras. But its failure to do so from the outset is the reason it found itself in the centre of numerous privacy investigations. In 2010, Google admitted its Street View vehicles were inadvertently collecting “payload data” from unsecured WiFi networks in houses and businesses along the mapped routes. “Payload data” effectively means anything that passes through a network, and could include e-mails, account passwords and other identifying or private information. When German authorities first confronted Google, the company denied it collected personal information, but eventually admitted that was incorrect.
An image of Live Action Role Players sword fighting caught on Google Street View. The subject's faces have been blurred by Google to protect their privacy.
How does Google anonymize data?
All images collected from Street View cameras are passed through a filter that automatically blurs faces, licence plates and other potentially identifying information. In addition, users can manually report an offensive or otherwise problematic image through the service itself. Still, over the years, there has been no shortage of embarrassing Street View incidents – including, most recently, a user who saw her boyfriend with another woman while looking up directions on Street View.
An image of a band playing in the middle of an intersection caught on Google Street View.
What happens to the personal data Google collected?
Depends on the jurisdiction. In some countries, such as Ireland, authorities asked Google to delete the data, and the company says it complied (Google also hired a third party to confirm the deletion). But in other cases, such as the investigation that resulted in the $7-million settlement, the data provided potential evidence, and deleting it would likely have subjected Google to more legal problems. With the case now settled, the company says it is in the process of deleting the data.
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- Updated January 19 4:00 PM EST. Delayed by at least 15 minutes.