Source: DAVID STREITFELD and KEVIN J. O’BRIEN
After months of negotiation, Johannes Caspar, a German data protection official, forced Google to show him exactly what its Street View cars had been collecting from potentially millions of his fellow citizens. Snippets of e-mails, photographs, passwords, chat messages, postings on Web sites and social networks — all sorts of private Internet communications — were casually scooped up as the specially equipped cars photographed the world’s streets.
“It was one of the biggest violations of data protection laws that we had ever seen,” Mr. Caspar recently recalled about that long-sought viewing in late 2010. “We were very angry.”
Google might be one of the coolest and smartest companies of this or any era, but it also upsets a lot of people — competitors who argue it wields its tremendous weight unfairly, officials like Mr. Caspar who says it ignores local laws, privacy advocates who think it takes too much from its users. Just this week, European antitrust regulators gave the company an ultimatum to change its search business or face legal consequences. American regulators may not be far behind.
The high-stakes antitrust assault, which will play out this summer behind closed doors in Brussels, might be the beginning of a tough time for Google. A similar United States case in the 1990s heralded the comeuppance of Microsoft, the most fearsome tech company of its day.
But never count Google out. It is superb at getting out of trouble. Just ask Mr. Caspar or any of his counterparts around the world who tried to hold Google accountable for what one of them, the Australian communication minister Stephen Conroy, called “probably the single greatest breach in the history of privacy.” The secret Street View data collection led to inquiries in at least a dozen countries, including four in the United States alone. But Google has yet to give a complete explanation of why the data was collected and who at the company knew about it. No regulator in the United States has ever seen the information that Google’s cars gathered from American citizens.
The tale of how Google escaped a full accounting for Street View illustrates not only how technology companies have outstripped the regulators, but also their complicated relationship with their adoring customers.
Companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple supply new ways of communication, learning and entertainment, high-tech wizardry for the masses. They have custody of the raw material of hundreds of millions of lives — the intimate e-mails, the revealing photographs, searches for help or love or escape.
People willingly, at times eagerly, surrender this information. But there is a price: the loss of control, or even knowledge, of where that personal information is going and how it is being reshaped into an online identity that may resemble the real you or may not. Privacy laws and wiretapping statutes are of little guidance, because they have not kept pace with the lightning speed of technological progress.
Michael Copps, who last year ended a 10-year term as a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, said regulators were overwhelmed. “The industry has gotten more powerful, the technology has gotten more pervasive and it’s getting to the point where we can’t do too much about it,” he said.
Although Google thrives on information, it is closemouthed about itself, as the Street View episode shows. When German regulators forced the company to admit that the cars were sweeping up unencrypted Internet data from wireless networks, the company blamed a programming mistake where an engineer’s experimental software was accidentally included in Street View. It stressed that the data was never intended for any Google products.
The F.C.C. did not see it Google’s way, saying last month the engineer “intended to collect, store and review” the data “for possible use in other Google products.” It also said the engineer shared his software code and a “design document” with other members of the Street View team. The data collection may have been misguided, the agency said, but was not accidental.
Although the agency said it could find no violation of American law, it also said the inquiry was inconclusive, because the engineer cited his Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. It tagged Google with a $25,000 fine for obstructing the investigation.
Google, which has repeatedly said it wants to put the episode behind it, declined to answer questions for this article.
“We don’t have much choice but to trust Google,” said Christian Sandvig, a researcher in communications technology and public policy at the University of Illinois. “We rely on them for everything.”
That reliance has built an impressive company — and a self-assurance that can be indistinguishable from arrogance. “Google doesn’t seem to think it ever will be held accountable,” Mr. Sandvig said. “And to date it hasn’t been.”
When Street View was introduced in 2007, it elicited immediate objections in Europe, where privacy laws are tough. The Nazis used government data to systematically pursue Jews and other unwanted groups. The East German secret police, the Stasi, similarly controlled data to monitor perceived enemies.