Could This Be Google's Privacy Moment?

About two weeks ago, Google refused a German request for WiFi data and other packets of data that were captured by Chevy Cobalt crawlers for the company's German Streetview maps feature.  In the last few days, however, company strategists have changed their minds and granted the request in order to avoid what may have been perceived as a "declaration of war" against those requesting the data. 

When the news broke in mid-May that Google Streetview was capturing data other than street-level imagery, it sent off yet another small ripple in the privacy debate.  The general apathy and disinterest shown by average Internet users regarding the Google snoop is not so surprising to those who have monitored the privacy debate for some time.  But what is surprising is that the people who are stepping up to challenge Google are the stewards of privacy within various governments, as well as the governments themselves. 



Whether or not this data collection is legal or illegal in the countries where it was performed, Google CEO Eric Schmidt has admitted that the code was placed "erroneously" (however that happens), that it was in "clear violation" of company policy, and that Google flat-out "screwed up."  Other quotes from Schmidt over the last few days have completely admitted fault, but he also reiterated that this was against policy.   As an interesting side note, the offending code appears to have been a "20 percent time" project of one of the engineers, and was somehow placed into the main Streetview system for the purpose of collecting data from public places

It may have very well been the case that this code was surreptitiously placed onboard the GoogleBalt systems, but that doesn't take away from the fact that many governments are irate about this, and are conducting inquiries on whether any laws were violated.  Hong Kong, Australia, and the U. S. state of Connecticut have all voiced intentions to investigate Google's actions, with Australia's communications minister Stephen Conroy even calling Google's data collection the "single greatest breach in the history of privacy."

The bottom line is that while most people seem to be numb about releasing even more of their personal data ("Google found my Wifi network?  Really?  Wow.  I think I'll play more Farmville now."), various government entities are seriously pissed-off.  And it's not a matter of changing a privacy policy for Google.   In a sense, the damage has already been done, and the data has already been collected on a massive, worldwide scale.  Can't hit "undo" on this one. 

From a user privacy perspective, much of what we do on the Internet is public, or can be made public in some way, and an open network can be accessed from a public street.  Just based on an accrued search and click stream, Google knows more about most people than their own mothers know.  Every Internet user should know that, though most don't.  The "deal" is that users voluntarily give up their personal data in exchange for a search engine's services.  And to Google's credit, I think it has generally been making improvements in user privacy over the last few years, though there's still a long way to go.

But regarding the communications policies of various geographies and cultures, and what can and can't be harvested, there are stricter guidelines, and it is this quandary that Google seems to be mired in at the moment.  I have long sensed that a privacy backlash would be a public one largely engineered by Google's users.  But due to users' apathy  -- not even murder via search engine seems to get anyone in an uproar  -- I think it may be more of a government backlash that sets down a new set of privacy rules and precedents.  And it looks like various government entities are interested in having a meeting of the minds with the folks at Google, at least to paint a clear picture of what is, and is not, off-limits for collection. 

3 comments about "Could This Be Google's Privacy Moment?".
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  1. Kevin Pike from Kevin Pike, June 9, 2010 at 12:40 p.m.

    First off, government is looks like a hypocrite when they want to know all about you, but then acts all pissed off at the private sector for doing something similar.

    Yes, searches do tell a lot about a person, but do people not get that Google looks at this data in aggregate fashion. i.e. location, age, gender across several thousand users?

    I was at a presentation of Google's former CIO and he said Google took measures NOT to attach this data to specific people.

    Let's back up for a minute. Say they did care about you. At best your a number to them (IP address maybe MAC address). Because they monitor your behavior, even when you not logged in. They just want to give you ads that better match your interest - not really a bad thing.

    Is it?

  2. Rob Garner from Author of "Search and Social: The Definitive Guide to Real-Time Content Marketing Wiley/Sybex 2013, June 9, 2010 at 9:51 p.m.

    Maybe the governments themselves have allowed too much private data to become public. No telling what Google picked up. It seems we're in an where disputes like this one may set new precedents. Internet users are generally too naive about this issue, and need to be educated. Really, networks should be secured if people don't want them to be public. Thanks for the comments.

  3. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel, June 13, 2010 at 1:33 p.m.

    "Google knows more about most people than their own mothers know"? I think not. Google certainly has more DATA about what happens via people's IP addresses than their mothers' have, but it's a real stretch to consider this knowledge. One of the biggest problems we all face in our business lives -- and sometimes in our personal lives as well! -- is that we have tons of data but precious little knowledge. Indeed, to a great extent, data and knowledge are inversely related.
    As Kevin accurately says, what Google really has is knowledge derived from aggregated data. That really doesn't worry me and shouldn't warrant worry from any of us.

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