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Germany fines Google $189K for Street View Wi-Fi data breach

The fine imposed by Germany represents a total of 0.002 percent of Google's $10.7 billion net profit in 2012, and would take mere minutes to claw that back.

Zack Whittaker Writer-editor
Zack Whittaker is a former security editor for CNET's sister site ZDNet.
Zack Whittaker
2 min read
Google Street View car
Google has long had its Street View cars collect mapping data by triangulating Wi-Fi hot spots. But the equipment was also capturing and storing real data: e-mails, passwords, and basically anything sent over an unsecured wireless access point. James Martin/CNET

Germany's privacy regulator has fined Google 145,000 euros ($189,000) after the search giant illegally collected private Wi-Fi network data, including usernames, passwords and Web site results.

It amounts to a minor bluff for Google, but an overall win, as the fine represents about 0.002 percent of its total net profit in 2012.

This is despite it being "one of the biggest data protection rules violations known," according to Hamburg data regulator Johannes Caspar in an e-mailed statement to Bloomberg, claiming that Google's "internal control mechanisms must have severely failed."

It's the highest fine that Germany could have dished out to any company under German law. A new EU data protection and privacy law would have allowed up to 2 percent of Google's annual turnover to have been collected.

Caspar noted, however, that the fine was "a totally inadequate" deterrent to the company.

Six other EU nations remain entangled with Google over its merged privacy policy, but under EU law a member state can only fine up to 1 million euros per privacy breach. For a multinational technology giant like Google, this is no worse than a pebble dropping in an ocean.

Between 2008 and 2010, Google's Street View mapping cars captured the data from unsecured home and business Wi-Fi networks, but the case was reopened once criminal prosecutors dropped a case against the search giant.

Google mirrored this behavior around Europe and as far away as the U.S. and Hong Kong, as a result of the built-in software in the Street View cars. 

Earlier this year, Google settled its U.S. Wi-Fi data collection in the U.S. for $7 million. The settlement took Google just two hours to recover from. The $7 million was split between the attorneys general of 38 U.S. states.

According to Google, the data was unintendedly collected, and the company neither wanted it in the first place or "even look[ed] at it," according to Google global privacy chief Peter Fleischer.

This story originally appeared at ZDNet's Between the Lines under the headline "Germany fines Google for 'unprecedented' Street View Wi-Fi data breach."