Skip to main content

Google Escapes Its Biggest Privacy Scandal Virtually Unscathed

(Image credit: Eric Buermeyer/Shutterstock)

At the same time Facebook is rumored to have settled with the Federal Trade Commission for $5 billion, Bloomberg reported Sunday that Google is poised to get away with a small loss in comparison, $13 million, for what was once called the biggest U.S. wiretap in history. However, a San Francisco judge still needs to agree to the settlement.

Google’s Settlement

The settlement is expected to to be shared among the 20 plaintiffs that accused Google of spying on their data. What’s left of the $13 million after the administrative costs are paid and lawyers get their 25% commission will be split between the plaintiffs and some consumer privacy groups, according to a court filing. 

No one else who may have had their data stolen by Google will receive any money. According to the class-action lawyers, it would be too difficult to prove what data was stolen and when, after so many years.

Google will also commit to deleting any data it may have remaining from what it collected with its Street View cars. It also promised to do more to teach users about privacy online. 

Google’s Street View Car Wi-Fi Scandal

In 2010, Google was accused of using its Street View cars to collecting unencrypted Wi-Fi data from domestic homes. That data could have included personal web activity, as well as email addresses, passwords, medical records, phone numbers and other sensitive information. 

Google at the time said that the data was collected accidentally when it was trying to collect Wi-Fi names and MAC addresses. Wi-Fi names and MAC address are typically collected for tracking users in order to serve them more targeted advertising. Google claimed that it didn’t use any of the data for business purposes.

A document revealed by the FCC in 2012 showed that Google did intend to collect payload data transmitted by open Wi-Fi networks and that Google engineers transferred 200GB of data back to a Google data storage facility. The chances that the engineers wouldn’t have noticed that the “Wi-Fi names and MAC addresses” they intended to collect amounted to 200GB of data is quite low.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco said in 2013 that Google’s argument that the open Wi-Fi networks were more like AM/FM radio wasn’t valid and Google violated federal wiretap laws. If Google had went to trial and lost, it would have had to pay $10,000 for each violation, which could have easily added up to billions of dollars.

New Antitrust Case Against Google

Around the same time it was facing the Wi-Fi scandal, Google was also being investigated by the FTC over antitrust issues. However, despite the recommendation of FTC staff members for antitrust action against the company, the FTC Chairman at the time, Jon Leibowitz, determined Google hadn’t changed its search results to hurt competition, and, therefore, was not guilty of antitrust or anti-competitive behavior. The European Union’s own investigation found the opposite to be true a few short years later, in not one but three different investigations.

But Google is once again being investigated over antitrust issues in the U.S., not by the FCC this time, but the U.S. Justice Department. Meanwhile, the likes of President Trump and Elizabeth Warren, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, seem keen to investigate or even break up the company over various antitrust accusations.