Those who have never used the Google Street View application on their laptops or Google phones are missing out on one of the coolest features of Google Maps and Google Earth. Once you’ve zoomed in as far as the satellite images allow, Street View images, where available, can be accessed for an up-close-and-personal look at college campuses, historic landmarks, and even a home you are thinking of purchasing. The technology brings several cities across the globe right to your desktop, but the way the images are gathered have caused several governments to halt Google’s operations in their respective jurisdictions.
Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office accused Google of using its Street View cars to gather and store data from unsecured wifi networks it encountered in the process of taking photos and videos. Google initially dismissed the charges as "a simple mistake" on their part, according to the Daily Mail, but a follow-up investigation by U.S. regulators discovered Google specifically engineered software for the purpose of data hoarding. The ICO re-opened its investigation last summer and has requested Google reveal any personal information was gathered and what steps it took to prevent privacy breaches.
Around the same time Australia’s Privacy Commissioner discovered Google failed to destroy data it said it "inadvertently" gathered through 2010. According to ZDNet, Google informed the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, in March of 2011, that all the data it collected from open wifi networks had been destroyed. French authorities not only ordered Google to delete private data it gathered from its citizens, but also requested the actual data disks be surrendered to them.
The next big endeavor Google hopes to introduce to the general public is its self-driving cars. Company co-founder Sergey Brin told Time magazine he expects their automated vehicle technology to be a reality in the next five years. A vast majority (93 percent) of fatalities as a result of vehicle accidents are due to human error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Google reasons their self-driving vehicles will save lives, lower auto insurance costs, and revolutionize transportation in general.
The fact Google’s self-driving cars rely on the data Street View cars gather may limit their geographic reach. Big Brother Watch, a U.K. civil liberties organization, has repeatedly referred to Google’s operations as "spy-fi" and said Google continually makes excuses instead of admitting its spying activities. China has already blocked access to most Google services, while authorities in Bangalore, India banned Google Street View cars in June of 2011.
More Trouble for Google
Privacy issues aside, the sheer cost of Google’s self-driving technology will hinder sales even if the cars are made available by 2017. Developers at Oxford University have been touting their own version of automated driving technology. The major difference between theirs and Google’s is the price, which Oxford claims would cost about $150 per car, compared to the six-figure price tag for Google’s automated cars. Oxford also claims it does not need the mapping data Google uses to navigate its cars.
The one place Google has been relatively free from scrutiny is its home United States. Other than the U.S. Department of Defense banning Google from publishing pictures of military bases, the company has endured just a few scattered lawsuits. The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging Google violated the Wiretap Act and Federal Communications Act. The FTC, however, failed to prosecute the case.