In a clear example of overreaching, a few years ago, while collecting WiFi signals for an initiative to offer “location based services,” Google’s software program grabbed digital ephemera (including URLs, entire e-mails and passwords) off computers from inside people’s homes.
Although Google did not release the data publicly and claims to have never even looked at the payload, the mega-metadata site was this week fined $25,000 by the Federal Communications Commission. The fine is for obstructing the regulatory agency’s investigation of the activity, not for the unauthorized snooping. Although it would be a small pittance to pay the rather stark privacy intrusion on unsuspecting citizens gathered door to door, the cyber company was given a pass on that. It seems the oversight authorization conferred by the Communications Act of 1934 is a bit antiquated when it comes to privacy enforcement.
Let’s face it, there’s no such thing as privacy. In order to exist in a civilization where transmitting digitized data through the air is the preferred medium for everything from assuring our health care to submitting our tax returns, we all sacrifice security of our private business. Although screened from disclosure by cyber safety devices such as password-protected firewalls and encryption codes, most people’s personal details are nevertheless voluminously catalogued in countless federal files, insurance records and school offices.
In the cyber marketplace we also disclose our habits, proclivities and secret passions to a web of data collection algorithms. The best ordinary people can hope for in this oversharing environment is practical obscurity. We all live in glass houses, but most of the time our movements are tactfully ignored.
In fairness to Google, we are complicit in our own exposure. Though we value our privacy we also want Google to provide instant access to information the search engine software program has scooped up from open resources all over the world.
The company, which was founded by Sergy Brin and Larry Page 16 years ago, is the most popular Web research tool in the world. The search algorithm works by ranking your query along with millions of other anonymous queries to retrieve the most relevant results, sliced as thinly as desired, for the most users. It is a brilliant research tool. Happily for the company and its stockholders, its clever algorithms can also sort our individual user queries to help advertisers target our personal interests, a brilliant commercial tool.
As the search engine’s popularity grew, the company’s services expanded, offering broader access to data more aggressively gathered. For example Google Earth offers photographic images from satellites and allows users a bird’s eye view of practically any address on earth.
For its maps feature, Google also offers images publicly available through photographic canvassing the company has gathered block by block in a feature called Street View. Here is my house on Google Street View, which shows my reasonably tended lawn and my car in the driveway. Although I hardly think they were worried about my privacy, I guess I should be grateful the program administrators have censored my license plate.
In the WiFi case before the FCC, Google has shown equal equanimity and tact. Google’s lawyers claim the overreaching bonus data was collected accidentally and they have corrected their methods. But the unnamed engineer who designed the software, is protecting his own privacy. He has refused to talk to FCC investigators based on concern he could incriminate himself. Not to mention his corporate culture.
Bonnie Goldstein invades her own privacy via Twitter @kickedbyanangel