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$7m fine over Street View spy cars - now Google promises to be a good boy

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By Noel Young, Correspondent

March 13, 2013 | 4 min read

Google is to pay a fine of $7 million after admitting violating people’s privacy with its Street View mapping project - and has been told how it must behave in future.

A Google Street View car

The company scooped up passwords, e-mail and other personal information from unsuspecting computer users as its cars cruised by their homes.

Agreeing to settle a case brought by 38 American states, Google must now "aggressively police" its own employees on privacy issues. It must also tell the public exactly how to fend off privacy violations in future.

Despite the relatively small fine (for Google) of $7 million, privacy advocates say the agreement is a breakthrough in sorting out a company they say has become a serial violator of privacy.

There had been a spate of worldwide investigations into the way the mapping project also collected the personal data of private computer users.

“Google puts innovation ahead of everything and resists asking permission,” Scott Cleland told the New York Times.

Cleland, whose blog watches Google’s privacy issues closely, added, "The states are throwing down a marker that they are watching and there is a line the company shouldn’t cross.”

A major privacy battle is now likely over Google Glass, the new wearable computer in the form of glasses.

Cleland asked, “If you use Google Glass to record a couple whispering to each other in Starbucks, have you violated their privacy?

“Well, 38 states just said they have a problem with the unauthorised collection of people’s data.”

George Jepsen, the Connecticut attorney general who led the ’ investigation, said that he was hopeful the settlement would produce a new Google.

“This is the industry giant,” he said. “It is committing to change its corporate culture to encourage sensitivity to issues of personal data privacy.”

Consumer Watchdog however was cynical about the deal. “Asking Google to educate consumers about privacy is like asking the fox to teach the chickens how to ensure the security of their coop,” they said.

Niki Fenwick, a Google spokeswoman, said t “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.”

Google must now set up a privacy programme within six months,t hold an annual privacy week event for employees, provide privacy certification programmes for select employees, refresher training for its lawyers overseeing new products and train employees who deal with privacy matters.

It must also create a video for YouTube explaining how people can easily encrypt their data on their wireless networks and run a daily online ad promoting it for two years.

In Street View, Google’s special vehicles photographing the houses and offices lining the world’s streets.

For several years, the company also secretly collected personal information — e-mail, medical and financial records, passwords — as it cruised by.

There was worldwide uproar. An Australian regulator, Stephen Conroy, called it “probably the single greatest breach in the history of privacy.”

Google first denied any data had been collected from unknowing individuals then blamed a rogue engineer . But the Federal Communications Commission said the engineer had worked with others and had tried to tell his superiors what he was doing. He was less a rogue than simply unsupervised, the agency said.

The F.C.C. last spring fined Google $25,000 for obstructing its investigation.

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