Google is nearing a deal in which it would pay $US7 million to resolve investigations with more than 30 state attorneys general over its controversial Street View program, in which it captured data from private WiFi signals while taking street-level images throughout the world, said a person familiar with the looming agreement.
The deal, which is expected to be announced as soon as next week, would likely end the US regulatory scrutiny of one of the most damaging episodes in the history of the California-based search giant.
Google has repeatedly apologised for gathering information that in some cases turned out to be highly personal, blaming a low-level employee for activating the wireless collection system on cars that were supposed to take photographs for Google. The images are used for the company's map programs and Street View itself, which offers images of much of the planet, including many places not easily reached by roads.
French data protection regulators, for example, found that a Google Street View car had obtained passwords of users and lists of pornographic websites they were visiting. In one case, captured emails made clear that a man and a woman who were married - but not to each other - were attempting to arrange a liaison. Location data could have made their identities known, the regulators said in levying a $US142,000 fine.
Google officials declined to comment on reports of a looming settlement with US state attorneys general, but on Friday, spokeswoman Nadia Blagojevic said of the Street View program: "We work hard to get privacy right at Google. But in this case we didn't, which is why we quickly tightened up our systems to address the issue."
The Connecticut attorney general's office, which took the lead on the Street View investigation, declined to comment on reports of a settlement, saying that the probe is "active and ongoing."
The Federal Communications Commission also investigated Street View, issuing a $US25,000 fine that was sharply criticised by privacy advocates as inadequate given the seriousness of the intrusions and the wealth of Google, whose annual revenue topped $US50 billion last year.
"I don't think they care that much about privacy," said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog. "They see these things as the cost of doing business."
The $US7 million fine, if confirmed by the state attorneys general, would average less than $US250,000 per state. It was not clear whether the agreement will include any admission of improper action by Google or any limits on its future practices.
Google, one of the world's most valuable companies, has in recent years navigated a minefield of regulatory scrutiny.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) largely cleared it of antitrust allegations in January, accepting modest changes to Google's business practices in exchange for closing a long-running investigation. In a separate case last year, the company agreed to pay the FTC $US22.5 million, a record amount, for bypassing privacy settings on Apple computers.
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