More Bad News For Google Maps Fans: Street View Broke British Law

November 4, 2010
The Google Street View Car

The Google Street View Car

Two weeks ago, a Canadian court found Google guilty of breaking privacy laws when its Street View vehicles collected data from wifi networks as they roamed the Great White North. Now, there's more bad news for Google, and possibly for the people who depend on Google Maps: a British court has issued a nearly identical ruling.

As you may recall, when asked about the data it collects for Street View, Google initially said that it gathered only the names and locations of open wifi networks. Those networks work as a sort of ground-level GPS, helping Google triangulate users' positions with greater accuracy. Unfortunately, when Google reviewed its records, it found that its collectors were inadvertently pulling data from those open networks -- data like entire emails, user IDs, and passwords. Not good.

The reaction to the revelation has varied. In Germany, the country ordered Google to allow residents to opt out of being included in Street View. (Most haven't.) In the U.S., there are a few pending lawsuits, but nothing has come of them just yet.

Last month, a court in Canada found Google guilty of breaking privacy laws, and just yesterday, a British court reached the same conclusion. Thanks to Google's forthright admission of its mistake and its seemingly good intentions, the U.K. court has opted for essentially the same punishment as its Canadian cousin: rather than impose a fine, the court found that “most appropriate and proportionate regulatory action in these circumstances is to get written legal assurance from Google that this will not happen again – and to follow this up with an ICO audit.”

Google seems relieved, and the company has repeatedly assured all courts that it no longer collects wifi data of any kind.

What does this mean for Google services and for those (like us) who use them?

For Google, the ruling is obviously good news. The company has said that the collection of private data was accidental, and we have no reason to believe Google is lying. (After all, if the company really wanted to collect private data, there are far more efficient ways of doing that than hiring a bunch of cars to travel the globe in search of open wifi networks. Jiggering with Google search, Gmail and other services would yield much better data and be far cheaper.) The sentence seems fair, and it allows Google to continue providing free, useful information to the public.

For Google users, it's a little different. Since Google no longer makes note of wifi networks -- open or otherwise --  Maps and Street View may suffer from accuracy issues in the short run. Because those wifi networks help Google pinpoint your location, removing them from the mix will probably make Google's margin of error a little greater when it comes to finding you on a map. We imagine Google will find a way to address that in the long run, but for now, the folks at Mountain View may want to supplement the "You are here" notice with a footnote of "more or less".


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