After nearly a decade in court, Google has agreed to pay $13 million in a class-action lawsuit alleging its Street View program collected people’s private data over wifi from 2007 to 2010. In addition to the moolah, the settlement—filed Friday in San Francisco—also calls for Google to destroy all the collected data and teach people how to encrypt their wifi networks.
A quick refresher. Back when Google started deploying its little Street View cars around our neighborhoods, the company also ended up collecting about 600 GB of emails, passwords, and other payload data from unencrypted wifi networks in over 30 countries. In a 2010 blog, Google said the data collection was a “mistake” after a German data protection group asked to audit the data collected by the cars.
“Quite simply, it was a mistake. In 2006, an engineer working on an experimental wifi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast wifi data. A year later, when our mobile team started a project to collect basic wifi data like SSID information and MAC addresses using Google’s Street View cars, they included that code in the software—although project leaders did not want, and had no intention of using, payload data.”
The basis for the class-action lawsuit was that Google was basically infringing on federal wiretapping laws. Google had argued in a separate case on the same issue, Joffe vs Google, that its “mistake” was legal, as unencrypted wifi are a form of radio communication and thereby, readily accessible by the general public. The courts did not agree, and in 2013 ruled Google’s defense was bunk. And despite Google claiming the collection was a “mistake,” according to CNN, in this particular class-action lawsuit, investigators found that Google engineers created the software and embedded them into Street View cars intentionally.
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If you thought Google would pay out the nose for this particular brand of evil, you’d be mistaken. The class-action netted $13 million, with punitive payments only going to the original 22 plaintiffs—additional class members won’t get anything. The remaining money will be then distributed to eight data privacy and consumer protection organizations. Similarly, another case brought by 38 states on yet again, the same issue, only netted a $7 million settlement. We reached out to Google, but the company declined to comment.
Honestly, this whole Street View saga is a good reminder that Google’s been shady as hell for a long time—even when its motto was famously “don’t be evil.” (For the record, “don’t be evil” has since been nixed from its Code of Conduct.) Sure, we’re all wary of Google nowadays but it’s helpful to remember that an age where Google wasn’t at least kinda evil probably never existed.