There is a terrific article in the Business Section of the May 23, 2012 edition of the NY Times. It is entitled “Protecting Its Own Privacy” and is by David Streitfeld and Kevin J. O’Brien. It is about Google captures and retains through Street View-aka Google Maps. Those cars with photographic equipment on them that traverse the country are not just taking pictures. They are also capturing “payload”. As the authors put it, “snippets of e-mails, photographs, passwords, chat messages, posting on Web sites and social networks-all sorts of private Internet communications-…” I paused when I read this and then went back. Did it say “passwords”.
Yep, presumably if your wireless Wi-Fi network is not password protected Google will save any data transmitted across your network for as long as the car’s connection is maintained. Google says this is for about 1/5 of a second which could mean 250 kilobytes or roughly 25 emails for each time it accesses the network.
Google did not voluntarily tell anyone this and in fact tried to hide what it knew to be true from the FCC (got a 25K fine) and European regulators, who brought this to light a few years ago and are now raising antitrust concerns about Google in general. As most mega companies have learned (financial institutions have limited exemptions), antitrust is really a political action and if you take on the government you ultimately lose, be it in law, business and/or public image. The latter is starting to cost Google dearly. There is a class action pending in the Northern District of California regarding Street View, but the real issue will be the fallout from being just another big company.
I am reminded that all that you learned, you learned in kindergarten. Google has done some great things. Do you want to kill the Goose that laid the golden egg? If you don’t and the egg hatches and it is an ugly duckling or even a black swan, then what? Goldilocks found one bed too big, the other too small and the third just right. With privacy and the wired and wireless world, nothing will be just right. Getting to just about right will be enough. The technology that Google used to obtain payload is available to others. What if they can access payload even if the Wi Fi network is password protected. What if access is not short term and serendipity. Some self-help through blocking, opt out, and other methods have mitigated somewhat similar risks. From a privacy standpoint this is just an extension of legal cases involving cookies, spiders and other unauthorized access, with the twist that this is a theft or trespass without even indirect “acquiescence” through usage, by the victim. A similar concern was raised about Google photographing through satellites when Street View was initiated. Technology is invasive. There are some laws that may offer limited protection but all agree that laws are behind the technology. What are the damages from a loss of privacy if there is no present physical damage to a system or data, or if the victim cannot establish any knowable personal or financial loss? Its not an insurable loss at present. What if someone hacks Google and obtains the passwords that have been taken and can triangulate them to the persons to whom they belong? Can Google or the government successfully trace, prosecute and collect from those injured the victim or stolen their identity? Would there be a cost/benefit in doing so absent a legal mandate, and if the latter, will it kill the goose ? Is the damage for the loss of privacy your entire net worth and those whose privacy have also been compromised. Will we need to restore the use of typewriters and handwritten notes for anything that is personal and private? Is Google cracking open Pandora’s Box? Are we all, or about to become Prisoners?