It takes a lot for the term “unprecedented” to be uttered in the mother of all parliaments, but it was the most apt description for the parliamentary debate on privacy and the Internet in the United Kingdom last month.
In the great Westminster Hall, a building that dates back to the late 1300s, members of parliament came to air their views on the company that pledges to “do no evil” — and their views were far from flattering. In all, it was the culmination of arguably the most spectacular fall from grace ever seen in British corporate history.
It is easy in the fight to protect privacy to believe that the threat comes solely from the state. But the private sector is just as capable of intruding into our private lives as government. The disgraceful behavior of Google with their Street View program has demonstrated that in no uncertain terms. As most people know by now, the cars which created the images also captured data from members of the public who happened to be using wi-fi as they passed by. They collected over 600 gigabytes of such data in the UK alone.
Despite this, Britain’s Metropolitan Police have ended their investigation into Google — a problem with the law as currently written, perhaps, so one should be pleased that lawmakers are debating the subject. The U.S.’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announcement that their“investigation” into Google was closed following “assurances” by the company should raise similar concerns and debates across the Atlantic.
Arguing that people somehow “deserved it” or have no right to complain because the data wasn’t encrypted is fatuous. We don’t encrypt our mail or our telephone calls, but they come with a legitimate expectation of privacy; our internet usage and e-mail is just the same. Many people use public networks, sharing their access with friends or colleagues — sometimes because it’s convenient; sometimes because they’re at a café which provides such access for free; sometimes because they don’t know how to protect their wi-fi. Certainly, they should encrypt their systems — but it hardly relieves the wrongdoer of culpability if the victim is more culpable than others. That logic says that your grandmother shouldn’t leave the house because she’s so easy to rob.
But it seems that robbery rules in Britain, where the Information Commissioner’s Office sent two non-technical staff to Google’s headquarters — the heart of perhaps the world’s most technologically advanced company — who looked at a small sample of data taken from what Google chose to show them, and promptly issued a press release effectively clearing the company of any wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, counterparts in countries like New Zealand, Australia, Germany, France, the Czech Republic, and Italy all pursue Google, and the authorities in South Korea physically raided Google’s offices there. Thirty-eight states in the USA have united to probe the company’s behavior (despite the FTC’s decision to put its head in the sand), alongside a class action.
Regulators in Canada and Spain have both accused Google of breaking their respective national laws and, in October 2010, when faced with such persistent criticisms which evidently weren’t going to go away, Google announced (strategically confessed?) that it had collected more complete personal data than it had previously admitted — including e-mail addresses and passwords.
Google is hardly the only offender in privacy terms. Social networking media like Facebook also have privacy questions they need to answer. But of all organizations online, Google is the only one to have roamed the streets taking data from the airwaves. That puts them in a lamentable category of one. We must not let them off the hook; if Google can get away with this, more companies will follow in their intrusive footsteps and your privacy will become a fiction.
Google denies that anything’s wrong with Street View per se. “It’s nothing you couldn’t see walking along the street,” defenders say, as if we are all ten feet tall and have panopticonic vision which permanently records everything around us in glorious Technicolor, beaming it to the internet for later review at our or anyone else’s leisure.
Big Brother Watch supporters have told us of their concerns about (for example) images of their homes and gardens being online, showing the distance of their gate to the child’s paddling pool or the motor bike in the garage, the angles from which the pool or the bike can be seen from the house, and the type of alarm they have on their house.
This has terrible repercussions. In the UK, a murderer, Steven Hodgson, used it to target his victim’s home this year before breaking in. Then there are the more everyday privacy issues. The little boy Google showed naked in June. Or before that, another boy in March.
Then there is the sort of unpleasant and unfortunate moments in time which are bound to occur when images are captured everywhere: Ashleigh Hall’s family were very upset by images of her captured on Google Street View shortly before she was killed by the man who had stalked her on Facebook.
Several dead bodies at the scene of accidents or murders have been captured and screened online by Street View in Brazil — from which the trauma and upset caused for families and loved ones can only be imagined.
Each time, Google says that what happened was a regrettable accident and the image is removed. But the burden is all on us to do something about it, having had our privacy infringed. They take mountains of pictures of us and our property without our consent and without notice, then tell us that if there are problems or if we object, it’s up to us to identify those problems and make those objections pro-actively. This is the wrong way round. It’s their responsibility.
Indeed, Google was forced to offer an opt-out for Street View before it rolled out in Germany, and a quarter of a million people opted to do so. Why was no such choice offered to us in Britain, or to Americans?
We need to think about what kind of world we want to live in. In many ways, we all welcome new technology. But — strange as it may seem to say it in this age — anonymity is not a crime. And whatever way of life we settle on, Google needs to be punished severely in the wi-fi capture case, which almost certainly constitutes the largest invasion of privacy ever carried out in the private sector, in the United Kingdom or the USA.