Google Sets Dangerous Precedent for Data Collection

Amid our concerns about big-government spying on private citizens through agencies like the NSA, the other side of the coin – big-data technology companies – have often proceeded uncontested and free from scrutiny. A Google streetcar sighting, for example, is usually accompanied by a collective geek-out and a visit to Google Street View to see if we made into the world’s favorite map, but it turns out we should have been checking to make sure our Wi-Fi router was encrypted instead.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to take up a case from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that charged Google with wiretapping for picking up data from some people’s Wi-Fi routers.  The collection occurred from 2007-2010 with Google’s map-making cars. These cars, which create the Street View product, are equipped with hardware for pinpointing the location of homes. But this hardware can also pick up data from unencrypted routers, and the cars ended up pulling sensitive data like emails and passwords from these networks.

The Supreme Court’s rejection runs counter to the trajectory of Google’s ramped up lobbying efforts as it seeks to become a major player in the lawmaking world. Over the past several years, Google has dramatically increased its lobbying presence to climb near the top of the list of lobbying spenders in DC. This summer, they will move to a new Capitol Hill office that doubles its current space to 55,000 square feet, and its lobbying corps now numbers more than 100.

But lest the defeat in local court provide those watching at home with any solace, note that Google reached a $7 million settlement last year with 38 states over the collection. Last year, Google had more than $50 billion in revenue last year. The settlement is pocket change.

Google’s endgame here isn’t about the money – they got away with a slap on the wrist. It’s about setting a precedent to avoid further pushbacks to similar data collection mistakes in the future – if in fact it was merely a mistake. Google first said the data collection was unintentional, but then blamed it on an individual engineer who had acted without authorization.

It took a response from the Internet users themselves to force even a $7 million settlement. The FCC originally decided not to press charges under the rationale that since Google did not actively break into any networks, the collection of the so-called “payload” data wasn’t exactly theft. Once the case was underway they did fine Google a miniscule $25,000 for not cooperating with an investigation into the collected data. Again, pennies.

The lesson here is that Google could have easily gotten away scot-free. Even though they agreed not to use their vehicles to gather any more data without permission, it’s hard to imagine that either court’s action (or lack thereof) will pose any sort of deterrent to questionable data collection in the future