Google Street View Data Mining Not Due to A “Rogue” Engineer

On Saturday, Google released the full report of the FCC’s 17-month investigation of its Street View project. While the company had long maintained that the harvesting of “payload data” — emails, passwords and other personal information from unsuspecting households with open Wi-Fi networks — was the work of a “rogue” engineer, the report reveals that supervisors knew about the program.

By way of comparison, News Corporation’s James Murdoch, the younger son of Rupert Murdoch who was the “heir apparent” to taking the lead of his father’s media empire until the phone hacking scandal broke out last summer, has repeatedly sought to maintain that such illegal practices were the work of one “rogue reporter,” rather than a practice pervading the culture of News International papers including the News of the World.

Google’s fleet of Street View cars gathered the “payload data” between 2008 and April 2010. The FCC released a heavily redacted version of its report on April 15; the report released on Saturday only redacted the names of the individuals involved. According to the FTC, Google did not violate any laws but it did obstruct the investigation and was levied a $25,000 fine. While that is a year’s tuition to some college students (and only half a year’s tuition to others), it is equivalent to the profit Google makes in 68 seconds.

As the full version of the report reveals, when the Street View program was created, “privacy considerations” were supposed to be discussed with “Product Counsel” but (says the report) “that never occurred.” Google initially refused to allow regulators to see what data had been collected, claiming that the data was legal and that privacy and wiretapping laws would be violated if it did so.

But what emerges from a reading of the full report is that:

(1) The engineer who began the project on his “20 percent” time (which Google allots to employees to work on their own initiatives) “specifically told two engineers” including a senior manager about collecting payload data.

(2) Street View engineers had “wide access” to the plan to collect payload data.

(3) At least seven Google engineers handled Street View data, with five testing the Street View code, a sixth reviewing it line by line and a seventh also involved.

In other words, there was something more than one “rogue” engineer working with the “payload data” and Google preferred not to have this information made known.

As the New York Times notes, the engineer who has found himself caught in the midst of an FCC investigation has “cited the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.” He could not be interviewed by the FCC so, consequently, there are “still unresolved questions about the case.”

As Tech Crunch observes, the company, quite eager to put the matter behind it and avoid Street View gate, said that “data mining was ‘inadvertent’ and that Google now has stricter privacy controls than in the past.” Collecting the data was all a “mistake,” as a Google executive wrote on a company blog in 2010. Both Tech Crunch and the New York Times hone in one sentence in the report that suggests that the data mining was intended from the start:

“We are logging user traffic along with sufficient data to precisely triangulate their position at a given time, along with information about what they were doing.”

As Tech Crunch asks, “Why would Google need to know what they were doing? Seems irrelevant if you’re just mapping the location of networks, doesn’t it?”

If that is all Google intended to do, that is.


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Photo by sanchom


Huber F.
Huber F5 years ago


Huber F.
Huber F5 years ago

thx. although spying on the wifi of users, not paying for the services and getting upto 25 large is a eyeing too deep..

Yulan Lawson
Yulan Lawson5 years ago

Thanks for the heads up, it seems you can get away with a lot if you say it's a 'rogue'. Geez, it's as good as pleading insanity to get away with things.

Stefanie D.
Stefanie D.5 years ago

Well, unfortunately, google isn't alone, everyone in the web-business is just as complicit, as this is what 'cookies' are for as well as tracking our DNS/IP addresses, they can control (even redirect or restrict) and monitor our 'viewership' and 'traffic'. this means all of that 'payload' info, can be available to unwanted governmental scrutiny. Nobody likes to be manipulated. I personally don't mind their being 'aware' from my usage on the web, I have little to hide, but to protect my personal identity so it isn't abused for impersonation.

Jonathan Netherton

"“Why would Google need to know what they were doing? Seems irrelevant if you’re just mapping the location of networks, doesn’t it?”"

No, they explicitly mapped out that this is what they were going to start doing to everyone when they released their updated terms of service. In it, they entail a legal framework in which if you use any service of theirs, they have the right to track you across any of their services and aggregate the data, extrapolate patterns of what you do, what you think and say, who you know, and where you are and intend to go, and keep that information in perpetuity and do whatever they want with it.

Have a Gmail account? Youtube? do Google searches? Then their computers have harvested, sifted through and scrutinized your every waking moment. And at any moment that data could be turned over the the government - of any nation Google so wishes. And it's all legal, because corporations can do just barely shy of anything they want in the USA, and increasingly across the world.

Did you think the hundreds of companies that have recently updated their terms of service to match Google's data tracking policies and the release of CISPA, which would allow companies and governments across the world to share information on citizen-customers was a coincidence?

Mercedes Lackey
Mercedes Lackey5 years ago

What happened to "don't be evil"?

Kelly R.
Kelly R5 years ago

I love Google Earth streetview! I can see myself going to the shed to get the lawnmower there! I look at myself and say "Self mow that grass and lose 10 pounds!" I spent 2 hours in England there the other day! It was a wonderful cheap trip and I saw lots of castles!

Steven Jones
Steven L Jones5 years ago

Google could easily turn into big brother watching everything we do. Corporations are to big and have bought our political system. People complain about big government but don't realize the alternative is big corp. At least with government there is some say in how things are done. However more and more government has become the tool of corporations.

Amie K.
Amie K5 years ago

This is disturbing to say the least!

Troy G.
Troy Grant5 years ago

Big Brother is watching.