Google’s extraordinary acknowledgment that they have been collecting private internet transmissions in the process of constructing their Street View database raises questions that have not yet been properly aired. The don’t-be-evil crew has had its specially equipped cars crawling urban streets around the world, creating the photographic record that enables map searchers to see street-level images when they click on a location. This already alarmed privacy hawks in Europe (where privacy laws are much stricter than here), since it means that everyone’s home, and maybe their car, pets, lawn furniture and messages to the postman, are on display before the whole world. But the new disclosure goes a lot further.
Google says its cars were using the locations and IP addresses of wi-fi hotspots along its route to verify its position, a plausible notion because the data collected from the different cars have to be concatenated, and discrepancies would cause headaches. How then to explain why Google collected not only this minimal information, but also “snippets” of email and the websites users were visiting at the time of the drive-by?
In its repeated public apologies, Google claims that collecting and storing these data was an accident, a coding error, a breakdown in communication between multiple teams collaborating on the project. This is not credible. Even if it were necessary to acquire all the information streaming from these users to identify their location—which seems strange to me, but I’m not a network geek—whatever technique used to extract the few items they needed could have been used to expunge the rest. Can anyone really believe that vast quantities of personal data were not only captured but stored at significant expense simply because of an oversight?
And let’s take it one step further. Google’s business model is to sell your personal data to advertisers, nothing more or less. The ads you see on search pages and to the side of Gmail messages have value because they are tailored to the content of your internet activity. Google captures the content and sells the ads. They have every incentive to capture as much content as they can.
Distilling ad-relevant data from messy, real-life internet use is extremely difficult, which is one reason why Google employs lots of very smart people. Their struggle to constantly improve on this distillation is fed by the massive web data to which the company has access. This is where the Street View cars come in: as a byproduct of their positioning system, they were collecting random web activity which Google could not otherwise obtain.
A key question for investigators, then, should be whether the personal data Google admits to collecting and storing was used by any unit of the company for analytical purposes.
Beyond this, we should recognize the paradox at the heart of Googledom. In many ways this is an admirable company, driven by idealism. Their business model allows them to offer a range of very high-quality services for free. They have a commitment to making the world’s information more accessible to the ordinary user, which is mostly a good thing. But in the final analysis, the money comes from advertisers, and they pony up because Google’s individual-level data permits a degree of customization marketers could only have dreamed of until recently. This generates a powerful financial incentive for Google to undermine privacy whenever the opportunity arises, as it does every time you use one of their tools. This company, and others in the same line of work, needs to be tightly regulated.