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Google’s “rogue engineer” Street View excuse blown apart

Published: April 30, 2012 | 9:19 am
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Suspicions around Google‘s handling of data privacy in Street View data collection have been reawakened, with allegations that the incident was not solely the work of one “rogue engineer.” Google released a lightly-redacted version of the full report this weekend, leaving more details visible than the FCC’s heavily censored version; in it, it’s confirmed that the engineer who began the Street View project as his “20%” spare time project at Google “specifically told two engineers working on the project, including a senior manager, about collecting payload data.”

Whereas Google had maintained that the data collection had been a mistake, caused by a single engineer working without approval or guidelines, the new information suggests that knowledge of the project was broader than previously implied. Not only did the engineer responsible for initiating Street View tell others at the company about the project – with seven engineers working on the data in 2007 – but he was apparently aware of the potential for collecting WiFi details and traffic and analyzing that data.

“We are logging user traffic along with sufficient data to precisely triangulate their position at a given time, along with information about what they were doing” the unnamed engineer wrote in his proposal. That data would “be analyzed offline for use in other initiatives” he suggested, though Google now insists that no analysis was ever made.

Google was fined $25,000 by the FCC for allegedly obstructing the investigation, but the agency decided no privacy laws had been broken. That’s despite an uncompleted to-do task in the Street View project for “Discuss privacy considerations with Product Counsel” being highlighted, and evidence that Google had collected unencrypted emails, site history and more from users.

A Google spokesperson expressed a hope that, with the report now public, “we can now put this matter behind us”; she said that Google’s privacy policies were now considerably tighter, in part as a result of the Street View debacle. However, as privacy advocates get their teeth into the freshly released report, it’s unlikely this topic will go away any time soon.


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