Did Google lie to European privacy regulators?

did google lie to european privacy regulators googlestreetviewWith the FCC’s declaration that Google staffers knew that its Street View cars were collecting private data via open Wi-Fi networks over a two-year period, a strange question finds itself being raised: Was Google unfortunately mistaken, or outright lying when it told European privacy regulators that the collection had been the result of one lone programmer making a mistake? The difference between the two could mean the difference between heads being shaken in sadness and investigations into the company’s privacy policies being re-opened by authorities.

In an email to Ars Technica, a spokesman for the Hamburg Data Protection Authority stopped just short of calling Google liars. “Well, deceived is a big word—maybe somewhat duped,” wrote Ulrich Kühn, adding that, in his view, “Google always admitted just as much as they were forced to by hard evidence.” Kühn’s boss, data protection commissioner Johannes Caspar, also hinted at suspected ill intent on the part of Google when speaking to the New York Times, saying “We had been told that it was a simple mistake, but now, we are learning that this wasn’t a mistake and that people within the company knew this information was being collected. That puts it in a totally different light.”

It’s possible that the discrepancy could lead to big trouble for Google, according to Jacob Kohlstamm, chairman of the Dutch Data Protection Authority. “[Google global privacy counsel] Peter Fleischer made it pretty clear in his oral statement and in writing that it was the mistake of one single guy working at Google who had made a stupid mistake,” Mr. Kohnstamm told the NYT. “But apparently, it wasn’t a mistake at all. In a political sense, that would be considered contempt of Parliament and would mean the end of the career for the person responsible.”

A Google spokesman told the NYT that, while the company disagrees with statements in the FCC report, “we agree with the F.C.C.’s conclusion that we did not break the law. We hope that we can now put this matter behind us.” That might not be so easy; in addition to the Hamburg Data Protection Authority considering the matter part of an ongoing investigation, privacy regulators in both the United Kingdom and France have indicated a desire to review the FCC report further before deciding whether further action is needed.