Google pays $1.4M to Italian privacy regulator over Street View car markings

Google Street View car

Google has paid a €1 million ($1.4 million) fine to Italy’s privacy regulator over its Street View program, though not for the usual reasons.

Unlike with other Street View-related fines in places like Germany and South Korea, this had nothing to do with the fiasco of 2010, in which it turned out that the company’s street-snapping cars were also scooping up fragments of information from people’s Wi-Fi routers. This time, it was all about the vehicles’ appearance – people complained that the Street View cars were not sufficiently identifiable, so they didn’t know when the photography was in action.

In a statement on Thursday, the Italian regulator said Google has not only paid the fine, but also adopted recommended measures in Italy, including: putting big signs or stickers on the Street View cars to identify them as such; putting a notice of which locations will be visited on its website three days ahead of the filming; and publishing similar notices through “at least two newspapers and… through a local radio station for each region visited.”

The million-euro fine is actually quite high as these things go – the regulator imposed it because the illegally collected data goes into “a large database of particular importance,” and because Google has lots of money.

That said, it’s pocket change for a company that had an annual turnover of $50 billion in 2012. Plenty of European data protection regulators would like to be able to impose higher fines – and they will be able to do so if the new package of EU data protection legislation clears its final hurdles. Under those rules, the maximum fine for egregious privacy abuses will be €100 million or up to 5 percent of the company’s annual turnover, whichever is larger.

Personally, I don’t think cases like this merit anything close to a fine of that size. When it comes down to it, the Street View cars only photograph what anyone can see standing on the relevant street.

This Italian case reminds me of the situation in Germany, where citizens forced Google to give them a Street View opt-out. The amount of manual blurring this necessitated made Google stop refreshing its German Street View images (not that it admitted this was the cause), and the service is to my mind unnecessarily broken in Germany as a result.

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