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Google's Drive-by, Wi-Spy Issues Cost Company $7 Million (or 5 Minutes of Work)
By: Shawn Paul Wood
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Ever use Google Maps? Of course you do. And when you do, I'm certain you have gone to "Street View" to check out what your destination looks like...or, if you're slightly more honest...check out where your ex is living. When Google decided 'Street View' was going to be the next big thing in cybermaps, the hipster gang of tech wunderkinds never imagined this new rage would cost them $7 million in a federal lawsuit. 

But it did, according to this story by the New York Times

Granted, $7 million to Google is like $7 to me, found blowing in the wind at the gas station. Sure, it's nice to have, but I could probably spring for it. 

In agreeing to settle a case brought by 38 states involving the project, the search company for the first time is required to aggressively police its own employees on privacy issues and to explicitly tell the public how to fend off privacy violations like this one.

The case — affectionately called "Wi-Spy" — was developed between 2008 and 2010 when Google's kitschy Street View cars casually trolled through neighborhoods like an old white van with no windows on a school day. The unfortunate aspect of these Street View vehicles is that they also collected oodles of private information that was devoid of encryption. Why? Because waaaay back then, most home routers didn't come with a WEP code, so it was easy to surf the Internet at the generosity of your neighbors (or, um, so I've been told).

This created a PR ballyhoo for Google, whose mantra is "Do No Evil." Nonetheless, here they are — now a serial violator of privacy. Since the fine was a slap on the proverbial wrist to Google, they admitted a "mistake" but not wrongdoing because "the collection wasn't illegal because the data was collected from public locations and broadcast by the victims in plain text." Tell that to the people in 38 states and the District of Columbia who filed the class action lawsuit. That plain text meant something to them. And then, there's this:

The most disturbing part of the Wi-Spy scandal is that Google blames it on a rogue engineer, though according to an investigation conducted by the Federal Communications Commission, the engineer told others at the company about the data collection. It's alarming to think about the privacy disasters that could be created by a rogue employee or group of employees who work inside a company with massive data collection power, like Google. The FCC fined Google $25,000 for allegedly obstructing its investigation, but took no further action against the company. 

Enter the New York Attorney General for his 15 minutes of fame:

“Consumers have a right to protect their vital personal and financial information from improper and unwanted use by corporations like Google,” said New York Attorney General Schneiderman in a statement about the attorneys general settlement. “This settlement addresses privacy issues and protects the rights of people whose information was collected without their permission. My office will continue to hold corporations accountable for violating the rights of New Yorkers.” 

This issue, according to the NYT story, is that this isn't the first time Google has been busted for "doing no evil." Last summer, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined Google $22.5 million for "bypassing privacy settings in the Safari browser," and this became the largest civil penalty ever levied by the FTC. Fast forward to today; Google must "set up a privacy program within six months, hold an annual privacy week event for employees, provide refresher training for its lawyers overseeing new products and train its employees who deal with privacy matters."

Is this going to stop people from using Google to find hilarious images of the former captain of the football team living in a tin shanty outside Duluth, Minn.? Not hardly. Will this paltry $7 million make Google wince? Uh, no, considering that is lunch money for a company that makes $32 billion annually. So, where is the lesson to be learned? 

Unfortunately, it's a lesson for all of us — create a difficult password, and don't give it out like germs at a game of 'Truth or Dare.' Oh, and use Bing...just once. That'll show them.

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About the Author
Shawn Paul Wood is a hack-turned-flack with more than 20 years of collective journalism, copywriting and marketing communications experience. Shawn Paul is founder of Woodworks Communications in Dallas, Texas. If you need him, ping him here or follow him on Twitter @ShawnPaulWood
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