Google Pays $189,000 Fine to German DPA For Unlawfully Collecting, Storing Wi-Fi Data

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By Jabeen Bhatti  

BERLIN--Google Inc. has paid a €145,000 ($189,000) fine imposed by the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information after the internet giant allegedly unlawfully collected and stored internet users' unencrypted Wi-Fi data during the company's Street View mapping project.

“In my estimation, this is one of the most serious cases of violation of data protection regulations that has come to light so far,” Hamburg Data Protection Commissioner Johannes Caspar told BNA April 22.

Between 2008 and 2010, Google collected and stored “large quantities” of personal data, including emails, passwords, photographs, and chat logs, from internet connection holders in Hamburg as it gathered data to be used in Street View, according to Caspar.

A spokesman for the Hamburg data protection authority, Arne Gerhards, told BNA April 22 that Google paid the fine April 18.

“We work hard to get privacy right at Google but in this case we didn't, which is why we quickly tightened up our systems to address the issue,” Google's global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer told BNA April 22, adding that Google had given the Hamburg DPA its full cooperation.

Fleischer said nothing had been done with the data and that the data had been deleted as per the instructions of the DPA, which the authority confirmed.

German Fine Follows Other Fines, Agreements

Google in May 2010 admitted that it had inadvertently collected certain Wi-Fi location and content data with special equipment mounted on its Street View mapping project photographic image collection vehicles (9 PVLR 770, 5/24/10).

The collection of the Wi-Fi data was not limited to the United States but involved Street View mapping operations around the globe. Some data protection authorities fined Google, most recently Norway (11 PVLR 1309, 8/20/12) and most notably France, which handed out its largest enforcement fine of nearly $130,723 (10 PVLR 479, 3/28/11).

At the U.S. federal level, the Federal Trade Commission declined to take action against Google over its collection of Wi-Fi data, citing the remedial measures the company had taken (9 PVLR 1499, 11/1/10). The Federal Communications Commission found no violations of laws or regulations by Google but fined the company $25,000 for “deliberately impeding” its probe (11 PVLR 695, 4/23/12).

In March, Google agreed to pay $7 million to settle privacy claims brought by the attorneys general of 38 U.S. states over its collection of wireless data during the Street View mapping project (12 PVLR 453, 3/18/13).

Controls 'Failed Seriously.'

“[T]he fact that this nevertheless happened over such a long period of time and to the wide extent established by us allows only one conclusion: That the company internal control mechanisms failed seriously,” Caspar said.

The data protection commissioner expressed dissatisfaction at what he called “discount rate penalties”--fines between €150,000 ($195,750) and €300,000 ($391,500)--which he said are not sufficient enough deterrents to ensure companies adhere to data protection regulations.

But he said new regulations were being discussed to increase the amount companies would have to pay in future penalties.

“The regulation currently being discussed in the context of the future European General Data Protection Regulation, whereby a maximum fine of 2 percent of a company's annual turnover is provided for, would, on the other hand, enable violations of data protection laws to be punished in a manner that would be felt economically,” Caspar added.

In January 2012, the European Commission unveiled a proposed data protection regulation to replace the EU's 17-year-old framework Data Protection Directive (95/46/EC) (11 PVLR 178, 1/30/12).

Ramifications in Other German States?

Asked whether the Hamburg DPA expected the outcome of this case to have ramifications in other German federal states, Caspar said it would first have to be determined whether Google's abuse of WiFi scanners in different federal states constituted one act or several independent acts. If Google's actions are seen as a single act, then Google cannot be penalized twice under German law.

In the end, it is not a matter for Hamburg authorities to decide, Caspar said. “Each data protection commissioner has to decide that for himself,” he said.

It is not the first time Google and Hamburg's DPA have come to a head over privacy concerns in the past few years. After more than a year of discussion, the German data protection authorities and the internet giant finally came to an agreement over the Google Analytics computer program in 2011 (10 PVLR 1373, 9/26/11).

By Jabeen Bhatti