Investigations of Google Street View

As you might know, investigations against Google Street View are now underway in Canada, the United States and at least 17 other countries. The investigations aim to determine whether Google engaged in “unfair and unlawful collection of data” as well as “invasion of privacy and individual liberties”.

What is Google Street View? Simply put, it’s a technology featured in Google Maps and Google Earth that provides panoramic “street-level” views from positions along streets around the world.

To summarize the privacy and security issues at hand, Google began the Street View project in 2007. From the start, many countries and civil liberties advocacy groups raised concerns about Google obtaining and displaying images online of public spaces and buildings as well as private homes, without consent. Google has appeased some groups by allowing individuals to remove from Street View images of properties that belong to them. However, it turns out that over the past three years, Google was also using wireless receivers in its Street View vehicles to collect a vast amount of private data from Wi-Fi transmitters in homes and buildings along the Street View routes, without anyone’s knowledge.

According to the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), based on several independent investigations, as well as admissions from Google, the company gathered MAC addresses (the unique device ID for Wi-Fi hotspots) and network SSIDs (the user-assigned network identification) tied to location information for private wireless networks. Google also admitted that it intercepted and stored Wi-Fi transmission data, which includes email passwords and content.

The French National Commission on Computing and Liberty (CNIL) has released preliminary results of the Google Street View investigation in France. The results confirm that Google saved passwords to access mailboxes without people’s knowledge or consent. In addition, it seems that Google has already posted excerpts of content of captured electronic messages on the World Wide Web. Earlier this month the CNIL asked Google to hand over copies of said data.

EPIC has prepared an informative webpage to provide the public and stakeholders with an overview of the various investigations around the world, as well as pending results. This is a great resource to have.

Interestingly enough, these privacy concerns that Google is experiencing do not seem to have damaged the company’s reputation or consumer trust. According to a recent survey of more than 2,100 people, nearly half said they trusted the big three technology firms Apple, Google and Microsoft “completely” or “a lot” more than social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

In its defence, Google has said that it “mistakenly” collected the information, and has acted to uncover how it happened and what data were collected. But the company seems to have stopped short of apologizing for the invasion of privacy.

So, we’ve got a giant company that tries to balance its slogan of “Don’t be evil”, with its goal of collecting and distributing as much data as widely as possible; a bunch of countries and civil liberties organizations trying to protect citizens from corporate actions they perceive as harmful; and a citizenry that frequently seems ambivalent toward either the potential harm or the efforts to protect them, or that misunderstands the implications of their online activities.

How this will play out is anybody’s guess. Google has gotten itself in hot water before without suffering significant damage to its reputation. But will users eventually wise up and side with the liberties groups to demand greater privacy protections? Or have we truly seen a paradigm shift in privacy, wherein people simply care less about how others use their information?


  1. Samanthat Howes

    I don’t think there is any problem in displaying street views on Google Maps. If you happen to walk by these homes or businesses, do you have to obtain consent from the owner to look at the front of the home, or through the window of the business? No.. That would be absurd! Google Street view simply provides a virtual way to walk by.

    I actually find Google Street View a handy feature. It helps me to easily identify a business, or perhaps a new location I’ve never been to before. It makes it much easier when driving to new locations – if you already know what it looks like! I did notice that people’s faces, license plates, and other private information has all been carefully and painstakingly blurred from all Google Street View images.

    I did not know about Google Street View collecting private data from WiFi transmitters. I think that a line should be drawn here. I hope that Google is likely using that information for the powers of good (ha ha)and not disclosing it to anyone. But that data could easily fall into the wrong hands…