Germans fine Google for gathering personal data with Street View cars

Google was only fined about half of the maximum amount because the data wasn't gathered deliberately, the Hamburg DPA said

Google must pay a $190,000 fine in Germany for gathering and storing emails, photos, passwords and chat protocols from unprotected Wi-Fi networks with Google Street View cars, Hamburg's Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information said on Monday.

Google's Street View cars collected data from Wi-Fi networks such as SSIDs (service set identifiers), MAC addresses and personal payload data beginning in 2008, the company said in 2010. That admission prompted a German lawyer to request that the public prosecutor in Hamburg start a formal criminal investigation into Google's practices.

However, in November 2012, 2 years and 9 months later, the prosecutor's office decided not to pursue a criminal investigation into the matter because it was unable to find any violation of German criminal standards, it said at the time.

After that, Hamburg Data Protection Commissioner Johannes Caspar decided to reopen regulatory offense proceedings.

Google captured and stored personal data negligently and without authorisation, the commissioner said Monday. Because Google didn't intend to gather the data but did so negligently, the company was only fined half of the maximum fine, Caspar said.

Caspar said, this is a very serious matter and one of the biggest privacy violations in the world. "You have to realize that Google was driving in lots of countries throughout the whole world, and they had the same problems in other countries," he said.

Google handed hard drives containing the collected data to the Hamburg data protection authority, Caspar said. "Without it we wouldn't have been able to analyze this case, and our investigation would have been very difficult."

Google's Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer said the company had quickly tightened up its systems to address the issue. "The project leaders never wanted this data, and didn't use it or even look at it. We cooperated fully with the Hamburg DPA throughout its investigation," he said via email.

The commissioner also ordered Google to delete all the data it had gathered. A third party verified that Google indeed deleted the data, Caspar said.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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