Not long ago, when a Google Street View car came driving down your street, it wasn't just taking pictures to add to Google Maps—it was also scooping up information about local Wi-Fi networks as well as individual e-mail addresses and passwords. The privacy scandal led to formal investigations, international complaints—and in the United States, a $7 million fine from the Federal Trade Commission. Google maintains that the information was collected and stored inadvertently.
A British official Friday decided not to impose another monetary penalty on the company, but instead has ordered Google to delete any Street View data that remains in its possession.
On its own, this is pretty good news for privacy advocates. They might even be rejoicing right now—if not for the fact that we just spent the last month learning about an even bigger secret surveillance program run by the National Security Agency.
Google has 35 days to delete its data, or it will face criminal penalties.
On the other hand, NSA can hold your data for up to five years and never tell a soul.
It can keep "inadvertently acquired" data if it contains information about "threat of harm to people or property." It can listen in on U.S. citizens' phone calls or read their e-mails, without a warrant, as part of the process of determining whether said citizens fell unfairly into NSA's crosshairs.
As The New York Times noted Thursday, both NSA and Silicon Valley mine vast amounts of data to detect patterns; the only difference is one does it for intelligence and the other does it to make money.
But there's another difference The Timesdidn't mention. Despite functionally being in the same business, each organization is subject to radically different consequences if it breaches privacy protocols.
Update: A savvy reader points out that I risk drawing a false equivalence between the NSA and Google. To be clear: The two organizations are not the same—they're working toward different goals and function in very different ways. Maybe you believe national security does take precedence over commerce and the government deserves a pass. However, if you find privacy violation objectionable in and of itself, then it follows that the consequences for breaking the rules ought to be consistent. Run a red light? The penalty is the same for you as well as for the next guy, and the guy after that.