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How a Grad Student Scooped the Government and Uncovered One of the Biggest Internet Privacy Scandals

Jonathan Mayer hit the jackpot, unearthing a huge privacy scandal and the culprit was Google.

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It had done the same in the United States.

Vladeck had a quick response when it was suggested the Europeans were better privacy watchdogs.

"That's a lie," he shot back.

He leaned forward, speaking a bit more slowly.

"That is a lie."

He argued that although the Germans uncovered Street View's data collection, the FTC was not asleep at the wheel because it was investigating Street View at the time. But Vladeck said the FTC could not have done much even if it had examined a hard drive, since the agency's reach extends only to unfair or deceptive practices. Google had never told consumers it wasn't downloading Wi-Fi data, so it hadn't deceived them by doing so. To prove an unfair practice, the FTC would have needed to show that the data downloads caused consumers an unavoidable harm. "Street View would have been a very difficult case for us," Vladeck said. The agency quietly closed its investigation in late 2010 with no action.

Google was not yet free of the government's watchdogs. The Federal Communications Commission conducted a separate investigation of its own and discovered the data collection was not accidental, as Google had claimed once it owned up to downloading the data. The FCC sharply criticized Google in April but fined the company just $25,000, which is not even a rounding error in the Web giant's first quarter profit of $2.89 billion.

Megha Rajagopolan contributed reporting.  

Peter Maass is the author of "Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War," which chronicled his experiences covering the war in Bosnia, and "Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil," about the ways oil shapes the world. Maass has written in-depth magazine stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and other publications. He has taught at Princeton University, was a Visiting Regents Lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, and a fellow at both the American Academy in Berlin and the Shorenstein Center at Harvard. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012 for his forthcoming book on revolution, video and surveillance.

 
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