Google acknowledged to state officials that it violated people's privacy when it sniffed open WiFi networks with its Street View mapping cars, and the Google-haters are up in arms about it.
The admission is part of a settlement of a case brought by 38 states, which includes a relatively paltry $7 million fine. The settlement also requires Google to educate consumers about privacy protection.
Google's behavior in this case was wrong, and it deserved to be punished. But it was the activity of one engineer, who had Google Street View cars collecting snippets of data from unsecured WiFi networks as the cars drove by. That's a few seconds of data from each WiFi access point. Not a big deal.
But to hear the Google-haters wail, you'd think that Google was actually the Cannibal Cop, and it had just been acquitted.
The New York Times, for example (linked-to above), quotes Scott Cleland, a self-described consumer watchdog who's paid by Google's competitors and -- Are you ready for this surprise? Are you sitting down? -- criticizes Google. "Google puts innovation ahead of everything and resists asking permission," he tells the paper.
The NYT opines that "Consumer Watchdog, another privacy monitor and frequent Google critic, said that 'asking Google to educate consumers about privacy is like asking the fox to teach the chickens how to ensure the security of their coop.' "
As part of the settlement, Google must set up a privacy program for its employees within six months, hold an annual privacy week for employees, make privacy certifications available to select employees, provide refresher training for its lawyers overseeing new products, and train employees who deal with privacy matters.
Google must also create a YouTube video explaining how people can easily encrypt data on wireless networks and run a daily online ad promoting the video for two years, as well as running education ads in the biggest newspapers in the 38 participating states.
This is fair. Google was wrong.
But tech columnist Robert X. Cringely wants blood. He described the penalties as "Domino's Pizza coupons and a half-eaten roll of pepperment Lifesavers as a token of our extreme culpability."
On the other hand, Jeff Jarvis, author of the books What Would Google Do? and Public Parts, says the NYT coverage is "one-sided, shallow, and technopanicky." He writes:
First, let's remind ourselves of the facts. Google's Street View cars captured wifi addresses as they drove by as a way to provide better geolocation on our phones (this is why your phone suggests you turn on wi-fi when using maps -- so you can take advantage of the directory of wifi addresses and physical addresses that Google and other companies keep). Stupidly and for no good reason, the cars also recorded other data passing on open wifi networks. But that data was incredibly limited: just what was transmitted in the random few seconds in which the Google car happened to pass once by an address. There is no possible commercial use, no rationally imagined nefarious motive, no goldmine of Big Data to be had. Nonetheless, privacy's industrial-regulator complex jumped into action to try to exploit the incident. But even Germany -- the rabid dog of privacy protectors -- dropped the case. And the U.S. case got pocket lint from Google.
There are plenty of serious issues to discuss about Internet privacy, and Google has not always been on the side of the angels on this issue. But this particular case is a sideshow. Google did wrong, it got its deserved slap on the wrist, and now it's time to move on.
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— Mitch Wagner , Editor in Chief, Internet Evolution