What you think about Google’s (and Facebook’s. And Twitter’s…) efforts to collect personal information of its users probably says quite a bit about what you think about human nature: If you don’t mind a database of your online activities being used by social networks and search engines, then you are likely comfortable with the fact that Google might know quite a bit about you but will not use that information to do any one harm. If you wonder if that flatscreen TV is looking back at you, then you might see in Google’s inadvertent collection of personal data while collecting its street maps over the last few years as the foundation of our Orwellian fate.
Google was recent fined for its ‘accidental’ collection of information across open Wi-Fi networks while filming its Street Views for Google Maps (And by ‘accidental’, I do not mean to use the term ironically. Google executives, once called on it by the federal government, immediately apologized and said it would accept the fine.). The fine was for $7 million − about what Google Inc. collects per hour from its various advertising and business interests. How might we understand these latest infractions into our privacy?
Hiccups in the procedure of recording/digitizing data for maps is small potatoes compared to what the oft-called ‘digital revolution’ can do to privacy, though. And even the insiders, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, callthat already can find us (vis: The White Baseball Cap and The Black Baseball Cap):
By indexing our biometric signatures, some governments will try to track our every move and word, both physically and digitally. That’s why we need to fight hard not just for our own privacy and security, but also for those who are not equipped to do so themselves. We can regulate biometric data at home in democratic countries, which helps. But for newly connected citizens up against robust digital dictatorships, they will need information and tools to protect themselves—which democracies and nongovernmental groups will need to help provide.
The essay by Schmidt and Cohen, ‘The Dark Side of the Digital Revolution,’ came after a trip they made to North Korea this past spring (before things got really hot in April). But while they were in North Korea, their colleagues at Google released information rather more disturbing (this quote is from the Fox News website from 6 April):
The FBI used National Security Letters — a form of surveillance that privacy watchdogs call “frightening and invasive” — to surreptitiously seek information on Google users, the web giant has just revealed.Google’s disclosure is “an unprecedented win for transparency,” privacy experts said Wednesday. But it’s just one small step forward.
Biometrics and iris recognition are on their way, but what you and I do on Google is already being watched − sometimes by advertisers hoping to hook us for a new deodorant, sometimes by government agencies wondering why we are searching for suspicious terms. So far, Google has sought to keep the public aware of aggregate requests from federal agencies (see chart right), perhaps living up to its motto not to do anything evil.
As Sam Gustin’s report at Time’s Business and Money site points out, Google (like so many other social sites) has to walk a fine line between keeping everyone connected and yet keeping everyone convinced that their connections are private and safe. As the comments to Sam’s report suggest, most people accept that mistakes will be made by users and by data-sharing corporations. But many of those same comments suggest Google profited for its transgression, and paying back an hour’s worth of income isn’t going to goad the company to change its ways.