For Google, privacy just doesn’t compute

Google’s blasé attitude towards people’s private lives reflects a broader cultural indifference to privacy.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

These are strange times for Google, a company which was once synonymous with hippyish and creative cool and which was seen by many as having an ‘accidental business sense’ rather than being ruthlessly capitalistic.

Today, Google can’t do right for doing wrong – or at least for doing something dodgy. The most recent criticism of Google has centred on its antics in Germany, where it has been revealed that Google is not just taking pictures of every street for its Streetview product, but that its camera-carrying vehicles are also equipped with ‘omnidirectional radio antennae’. That is, Google is also mapping wifi access points, and, in doing so, is gathering information on the number and identity of the computers on a multitude of Wireless Local Area Networks (WLAN).

This revelation is bad news for Google. The issue on which Google comes in for most flak these days is privacy. At some points in recent years, Google’s intrusiveness has seemed almost pathological. There was the furore over the amount of time the company stored search logs for IP addresses; there was the ‘stealth’ launch of social-networking product Buzz, which automatically signed up Gmail account holders and assigned them a circle of friends based on who they emailed most frequently; and, most prominently, there has been the growing annoyance over Streetview, especially the failure of ‘face-blurring’ technology to conceal the identities of all the people the Streetview cameras just happen to capture. One man, for example, was photographed having a crafty fag despite having told his wife he had given up. And a woman who had fled her violent husband was clearly pictured near her new home.

Google has responded to these numerous cases of privacy violations. Pictures have been removed; IP addresses are now logged for nine months instead of the previous 18; and countless products, from Buzz to Google search itself, are now equipped with privacy controls. However, almost without fail, Google still seems to mess up. Last month, Canada’s privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, felt moved to send a letter to Google co-signed by the privacy officials of nine more nations (France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the UK) outlining concerns. The letter’s tone was unequivocal: ‘The privacy rights of the world’s citizens are being forgotten as Google rolls out new technological applications.’

It was at this point, just as this letter was causing waves, that the revelations about Google’s collection of private WLAN data in Germany was discovered. In effect, the actions in Germany meant that Google was collecting both the names of private wireless networks and the MAC addresses (the unique number of a computer’s wifi card) using them. Germany’s federal commissioner for data protection, Peter Schaar, was not best pleased. In fact he was ‘appalled’: ‘I call upon Google to delete previously unlawfully collected personal data on the wireless network immediately and stop the rides for Streetview.’

Google has responded by arguing that the WLAN info collected was simply for Google’s location services. So, for instance, mobile devices that aren’t GPS-enabled, but which do use wifi networks, can still be located on Google Maps. Furthermore, the data collected is ‘not tied to a particular user’. And the only reason their Streetview vehicles were also mapping wireless networks was out of practical convenience. The two products are entirely separate.

This sounds reasonable enough. The problem, however, is that this is not an isolated cock-up, a momentary insensitivity to ‘cultural norms’, to borrow the words of Stoddart’s letter. No, Google consistently invades privacy: it seems to store and aggregate information about individual users almost as a matter of course, and it frequently blunders into real people’s real lives.

There are two aspects to the Google problem. Firstly, as Simon Davies from Privacy International put it in an interview with spiked in March: ‘Google’s business model, as far as we can see it, depends upon a knowledge of the individual, a knowledge of the account holder.’ In other words, Google is predisposed to gathering as much information and data as possible – from its ever-growing collection of books to its knowledge of users – not because it is evil or in the pay of the state, but because that is how it makes what money there is to make online. For Google, privacy violations are a small price to pay – literally.

The second aspect is only tangentially related to the first. And it is something that Andrew Orlowski, the executive editor of the Register, hinted at during the recent live debate in London ‘Is Google too big?’: ‘I’ve often found that Google people regard themselves to be the smartest guys in the room, much like Enron did, but they’re frequently the most un-empathetic people in the room, too, and the least sympathetic. And still, after years of writing about Google, I can’t work out whether they’re high-spectrum autistic or whether it’s something more premeditated.’

Now, this isn’t to suggest that Google’s proclivity for the social faux pas is born of some sort of collective mental trait. Rather it is to point out that something like an individual’s privacy, an individual’s freedom to make choices about their lives free from the external gaze, is something that simply doesn’t make sense to Google. Privacy, in this sense, doesn’t compute. Google’s disregard for people’s privacy reflects a broader cultural indifference to the ideal of privacy today. That is why Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, could sound like one of those politicians defending CCTV cameras when he announced that Google would reduce the amount of time it stores search logs: ‘If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.’

The problem with this glib disregard for privacy, and with Google’s blasé attitude towards privacy more broadly, is that it reflects a shift in society itself. In societies in which suspicion and mistrust are routinely fostered through a raft of legislation, from the compulsory vetting of adults to anti-terror legislation, Schmidt’s ‘what-do-you-have-to-hide?’ schtick is entirely mainstream. The fundamental problem with Google’s behaviour owes less to Google itself than it does to the denigration of privacy more broadly.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black reported from a spiked event tackling the question ‘Has Google got too big?’. David Crow called Google a company of contradictions. Jason Walsh asked if Google was an anti-capitalist scapegoat? Simon Davies warned that Google might steer us to a ‘privacy Chernobyl’. Andrew Orlowski said we’re all in Google’s crossfire. Rob Killick called Google a frenemy of the internet generation. Or read more at the spiked debate page Has Google got too big?.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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