Google has repeatedly apologized for gathering information that in some cases turned out to be highly personal, blaming a low-level employee for activating the wireless collection system on cars that were supposed to take photographs for Google. The images are used for the company’s map programs and Street View itself, which offers images of much of the planet, including many places not easily reached by roads.
French data protection regulators, for example, found that a Google Street View car had obtained passwords of users and lists of pornographic Web sites they were visiting. In one case, captured e-mails made clear that a man and a woman who were married — but not to each other — were attempting to arrange a liaison. Location data could have made their identities known, the regulators said in levying a $142,000 fine.
Google officials declined to comment on reports of a looming settlement with U.S. state attorneys general, but on Friday, spokeswoman Nadia Blagojevic said of the Street View program: “We work hard to get privacy right at Google. But in this case we didn’t, which is why we quickly tightened up our systems to address the issue.”
The Connecticut attorney general’s office, which took the lead on the Street View investigation, declined to comment on reports of a settlement, saying that the probe is “active and ongoing.”
The Federal Communications Commission also investigated Street View, issuing a $25,000 fine that was sharply criticized by privacy advocates as inadequate given the seriousness of the intrusions and the wealth of Google, whose annual revenue topped $50 billion last year.
“I don’t think they care that much about privacy,” said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog. “They see these things as the cost of doing business.”
The $7 million fine, if confirmed by the state attorneys general, would average less than $250,000 per state. It was not clear whether the agreement will include any admission of improper action by Google or any limits on its future practices.
Google, one of the world’s most valuable companies, has in recent years navigated a minefield of regulatory scrutiny.
The Federal Trade Commission largely cleared it of antitrust allegations in January, accepting modest changes to Google’s business practices in exchange for closing a long-running investigation. In a separate case last year, the company agreed to pay the FTC $22.5 million, a record amount, for bypassing privacy settings on Apple computers.
The new chairman of the FTC, Edith Ramirez, told a conference of privacy professionals in Washington on Friday that technology will remain a priority for enforcement actions.
“No matter what we at the FTC do, no matter what other regulators do across the world, the reality is that technology is just developing at a pace that we can barely keep up with, and we do need to be conscious of this,” she said.
In Europe, officials are in negotiations with Google over alleged antitrust violations stemming from its commanding position in the search business. Also, a coalition of national data protection commissioners has sharply criticized Google’s decision to track users across many of its services and is threatening to levy fines.