Sometimes you have to marvel at a major corporation's blind stupidity. A case in point is Google and its recent troubles around collecting information from WiFi networks without permission.
The gist of Google's problem in this case was that an engineer named Marius Milner developed a nifty little app called NetStumbler for sniffing out WiFi networks. It was extremely useful in developing Google's StreetView data set.
There was just one not so little problem.
As an article on Ars Technica explains, while Milner was casting his net to get at all that lovely WiFi data, he was also catching some stuff he shouldn't have, such as email addresses and passwords. Not cool.
But Milner wasn't stupid. When he developed the app, he recognized that this was a potential minefield. He informed his superiors, who apparently never read his reports. No news is good news, and the research went on until the US government found out. Suddenly, Google had some serious 'splaining to do.
It's hard to know whether this is a case of corporate arrogance (those in charge believing that, if it's not illegal, we can just keep doing it) or of corporate stupidity (data gathering uber alles). Regardless, Ron Lichtinger, publisher for the enterprise IT and government groups at FierceMarkets, calls this kind of lapse despicable. [Full disclosure: I also work with FierceMarkets.]
"This all goes back to Business Ethics 101: When any business justifies the development of a product/service by saying, 'It's not illegal, so it's fair game,' it needs to take a step back to seriously think through the broader context of what it's doing as a complete entity, or suffer the consequences when the court of public opinion -- or the federal government, in this case -- turns against them," Lichtinger said.
He has a point here. Google can't simply write this off by saying it wasn't strictly illegal. In fact, the company has held itself to a higher standard. Nobody forced it to put that ill-advised statement into its corporate launch papers, but when you hold yourself to a standard of "Don't Be Evil," you become a target, especially as you get bigger.
Google probably put that statement in there because it didn't want to be Microsoft, which it perceived at the time to be the poster child for corporate arrogance. But as a company grows, the more decisions are made, the more actions are spread out across the company, and the easier it is to become complacent, lazy, and, yes, arrogant.
In other words, a onetime idealistic startup can become the company it so despised in fairly short order. Meet the new boss -- same as the old boss.
As Lichtinger says, demonizing another company only works so long before the spotlight shifts in another direction.
"I think Google's biggest misstep has been assuming to be the de facto good guy for too long. While they built their business on a solid product, Google built its brand by tapping into a collective hatred of Microsoft with the expectation of riding that sentiment forever," he said. "That's a dangerous game, particularly when your opponent begins to fade from public consciousness as the de facto bad guy."
In this case, Google might very well have been innocently collecting data, and it might have even been doing it within the strict confines of the law. But that's just not good enough sometimes. When you grow to be a corporate entity with the pure market power of Google, you are going to be held to a higher standard, especially when you purport never to do any evil -- a nearly impossible standard for a company the size of Google.
Not that Google is alone in being stupid or arrogant. Not by a long shot. Apple faces a lawsuit over its own data collection problems around the iPhone. Just the other day, in fact, a judge ruled that a lawsuit on this issue could go forward.
Meanwhile, Facebook is under increasing pressure regarding privacy, and a recent Consumer Reports special report found increasing concern among users over privacy issues. There may not be direct legal trouble yet, but it's probably not far off.
It just goes to show that we should never lose sight of the level of hubris and blind stupidity that large corporations are capable of achieving. In fact, they prove it every day.
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.