Last month, the attorneys general of 38 states, including Maine, announced a $7 million settlement of charges that Google engaged in unauthorized collection of data from wireless networks. Of most concern to privacy advocates was the collection that took place in residential neighborhoods, from unsecured Wi-Fi networks of home Internet users.
The collecting happened as part of Google’s Street View effort. Google announced the program five years ago, saying it would give viewers the ability to take a 360-degree look around places on all seven continents. It was supposed to help people looking to find a home, explore places they’d never been, or simply gawk.
To collect the data for Street View, Google dispatched a fleet of vehicles equipped with cameras and computers. They roamed the streets of the United States, photographing whatever could be seen from public streets. The intent was not to invade people’s privacy, but in some cases the data collection was, shall we say, vigorous.
Some of Google’s colorful cars gathered electronic data from wireless computer networks in residential areas. The information that they collected included what is termed “payload data,” including email texts and addresses to Web pages people were viewing. It’s likely that more than a little business content was captured as well.
As soon as the unauthorized data gathering was discovered, Google management said it was not aware that it had been happening; that the company isolated the data once it was discovered; and that the company never used payload data in any of Google’s products or services.
It seemed that was good enough for the Federal Trade Commission, which said in May 2010 it would “take a very, very close look” at Google’s actions. The FTC ended its investigation that October, apparently without examining the data Google had gathered. The Electronic Privacy Information Center ( epic.org) filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the FTC the following February, settling the case after the FTC turned over documents suggesting that it lacked enforcement authority.
Connecticut’s attorney general led the legal action by the states and the District of Columbia; the upshot was the settlement announced March 12. Under the terms, Google will not use any of the data that had been collected and segregated in its products or services; that data will be destroyed. The company will train employees about privacy and confidentiality of user data and run an ad campaign to help educate consumers about securing their personal information when using wireless networks.
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills called the settlement “a reminder that people should take steps to protect themselves from unwarranted intrusions of their personal and financial matters. Password-protecting your home or business Wi-Fi networks is a simple first step.”
To make sure your wireless network can’t be accessed by unwanted or unknown parties, read PC World’s article, “How To Lock Down Your Wireless Network” ( find.pcworld.com/72367). You may also want to contact your Internet service provider for help.
Maine’s share of the settlement is just over $106,000. That money may be used to pay for litigation or for future consumer protection or privacy enforcement and education.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.