2013 03 16 NYT Google Street View – NYTimes.com
Published: March 16, 2013
The settlement last week between a group of state attorneys general and Google over the company’s improper data collection from home wireless networks shows the need to overhaul a 27-year-old federal law that is not up to the task of addressing new forms of privacy invasion.
The case concerns Google Street View, the company’s program to take photographs of homes, businesses and streets. The mapping project, which had cars outfitted with cameras and other equipment drive every block of America and many other countries, also captured e-mail messages, passwords and personal documents.
The company said it meant only to catalog the location of the wireless networks and it inadvertently collected personal information that it never used. Google agreed to pay $7 million to 38 states and the District of Columbia and to create an Internet campaign to show consumers how they could protect their computers from such intrusions. Google Street View is also the subject to several pending private lawsuits and investigations by other countries.
The attorneys general based their suit on states’ consumer protection laws. A federal law, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, is also supposed to protect Americans’ phone calls and personal messages from being monitored without warrants and subpoenas. But it was written for a different era and offers only partial protection against the kind of surveillance that worries privacy advocates today.
For starters, the law provides little or no protection for data about the location of cellphones and other devices that is not considered communications but can be used to identify, connect or place individuals. Some federal officials cited weaknesses in the federal law and decided that they could not bring a case against Google’s collection of information about wireless networks.
The company’s Street View program continues to take pictures, but it no longer collects data about wireless networks. Google has also said that it has privacy safeguards to ensure that the locations of individual wireless users are not disclosed without their consent. Those assurances do not go far enough. Congress needs to explicitly protect such information from prying eyes.
There have been efforts to upgrade parts of the federal law, but not all of it. In November, for instance, Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, tried to amend the law to make it harder for the government to obtain private e-mail messages stored on the servers of companies like Google. A bipartisan majority of the Judiciary Committee, which Mr. Leahy heads, approved the change, but the full Senate did not vote on it before the end of its term. Mr. Leahy has said that updating the law is one of his top priorities.
A lot has changed since 1986, when very few academics and technology enthusiasts had access to rudimentary e-mail systems and the easiest way to snoop on people was to steal their trash. Some might argue that it is just too hard for the government to monitor invasions of privacy, especially when law enforcement itself collects so much information. And many people willingly share every aspect of their life online. Such arguments, however, ignore recent innovations in encryption technologies and the desire of most Americans to keep their private lives private. Congress needs to improve the law so it can keep up.