Google Street View: A Systematic Invasion of Privacy

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.