How a lone grad student scooped the government—and what it means for your online privacy


Google promised its cars were only taking pictures—and the firm’s word was enough for U.S. officials—but French authorities demanded to know for sure. They inspected one of the vehicles in 2010 and realized that Google was not telling the whole story: The hard drives in the cars were downloading data from Wi-Fi networks. Google downplayed the revelation by contending the downloads were innocuous—just technical data, not personal information.

In Germany, where popular opposition to Street View was strongest, the data commissioner of Hamburg, Johannes Caspar, demanded to inspect a Street View car, too. At first, Google reportedly told him it didn’t know where the cars were. The firm eventually found one—but its hard drive was gone. At that point, Google said it was taking a new look at what the cars were downloading. Caspar insisted the company hand over a hard drive. After a few months, Google complied. Caspar discovered that Google had downloaded vast amounts of personal data.

It had done the same in the United States.

Vladeck had a quick response when it was suggested the Europeans were better privacy watchdogs.

“That’s a lie,” he shot back.

He leaned forward, speaking a bit more slowly.

“That is a lie.”

He argued that although the Germans uncovered Street View’s data collection, the FTC was not asleep at the wheel because it was investigating Street View at the time. But Vladeck said the FTC could not have done much even if it had examined a hard drive, because the agency’s reach extends only to unfair or deceptive practices. Google had never told consumers it wasn’t downloading Wi-Fi data, so it hadn’t deceived them by doing so. To prove an unfair practice, the FTC would have needed to show that the data downloads caused consumers an unavoidable harm. “Street View would have been a very difficult case for us,” Vladeck said. The agency quietly closed its investigation in late 2010 with no action.

Google was not yet free of the government’s watchdogs. The Federal Communications Commission conducted a separate investigation of its own and discovered the data collection was not accidental, as Google had claimed once it owned up to downloading the data. The FCC sharply criticized Google in April but fined the company just $25,000, which is not even a rounding error in the web giant’s first quarter profit of $2.89 billion.

Megha Rajagopolan contributed reporting.

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