German agency fines Google on data collection

EU lawmakers urged to stiffen privacy penalty

Google had admitted it wrongfully gathered data while mapping streets.
AFP/Getty Images/file 2010
Google had admitted it wrongfully gathered data while mapping streets.

BERLIN — A German privacy regulator fined Google $188,500 Monday for its systematic, illegal collection of personal data while it was creating its Street View mapping service and called on European lawmakers to significantly raise fines for violations of data protection laws.

The data protection supervisor in the German city-state of Hamburg, Johannes Caspar, said the fine, which was close to the maximum he could legally levy, was woefully inadequate to stop the data practices of corporations as large as Google.

The fine, the largest assessed so far by European regulators in Europe over the practice, amounts to 0.002 percent of Google’s $10.7 billion net profit in 2012.


“As long as violations of data protection law are penalized with such insignificant sums, the ability of existing laws to protect personal privacy in the digital world, with its high potential for abuse, is barely possible,’’ Caspar said.

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In 2010, Caspar’s agency became the first to uncover Google’s collection of the data from Wi-Fi routers in Germany, and the company acknowledged it had collected similar data around the world, prompting an uproar from Washington to Hong Kong.

Google characterized the collection as inadvertent and the result of a programmer’s error. Fragments of personal e-mails, photographs, and other unencrypted data were collected by Google’s fleet of Street View automobiles as they passed by homes compiling panoramic maps that cover about 5 million miles of roadway in 49 countries.

Peter Fleischer, the Google global privacy counsel, reiterated the company’s regrets and said Google had taken steps to make sure the violations were not repeated.

‘‘We work hard to get privacy right at Google,’’ Fleischer said in a statement. ‘‘But in this case we didn’t.’’


The Google project leaders had inadvertently collected the data, he reiterated. ‘‘We never wanted this data, and didn’t use it or even look at it,’’ Fleischer said.

Google said it would not appeal the fine.

Anna Fielder, a trustee at Privacy International, a group based in London that supports strong data protection laws, said the existing legal regimes in Europe and much of the world were ill equipped to meet the challenges of protecting personal information.

‘‘Germany has the strongest data protection laws in Europe, and this is all they could do,’’ Fielder said. ‘‘Most businesses are not complying with data protection laws because the costs of noncompliance — I mean these tiny penalties — are so low.’’

In March, Google agreed to pay a fine of $7 million and to aggressively police its own employees on privacy issues to settle a lawsuit brought by 38 states in the United States.