The Federal Trade Commission has ended its inquiry of Google and the data it collected from unsecured wireless hotspots, citing the company's improved privacy policies. Not only will the FTC not fine Google, but regulators "had received assurances from Google that it 'has not used and will not use any of the payload data collected in any Google product or service, now or in the future.'" If only Google could get off so easily elsewhere in the world.
In Italy, Google is facing tough new requirements for marking the StreetView cars and registering their itineraries, while the Czech Republic has banned the StreetView program entirely and Germany insisted upon a system by which homeowners could opt out of the service (244,000 households did, by the way).
Google provided the following statement to press about the decision:
We welcome the news that the FTC has closed its inquiry and recognized the steps we have taken to improve our internal controls. As we've said before and as we've assured the FTC, we did not want and have never used the payload data in any of our products or services."
While the issue in Europe has focused more generally on privacy, the FTC was more specifically concerned about the manner in which Google "accidentally" collected payload data from WiFi hotspots, including complete email addresses and passwords in some cases. Don't misunderstand me - the Europeans didn't like that either and still have ongoing investigations. In any case, the StreetView mapping project has become a significant liability for the company.
The question, though, is how much value does StreetView add for Maps users and should Google abandon it in the face of serious gaffes and privacy concerns? The hiring of a new privacy guru and continued mapping wherever it's allowed suggests that Google will certainly at least be taking a more cautious approach to mapping in particular and privacy in general. However, for any of us who have used StreetView to orient ourselves in unfamiliar areas, buy a house, find a business, and otherwise squeeze every last bit of information out of Google Maps, the service absolutely has value. It also has value to the businesses indexed on StreetView. Have you ever gone to a restaurant near your destination because you saw it on StreetView? I have.
StreetView isn't going away, nor are Google's troubles abroad with the panoramic mapping. It remains to be seen if a new focus on privacy can keep Google out of the hot water in which it seems to be finding itself lately.