Google and the great privacy contradiction

Why are we perturbed when a picture of our house appears on Google Maps but not when we’re filmed by state CCTV?

Norman Lewis

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To some extent you have to be concerned with Google’s privacy breaches. Firstly, it does seem that Google has been collecting private data that it has then retained, and that this has been going on for some time. And it makes you wonder ‘why the hell did they do that?’ It is behaviour that raises questions – chiefly, ‘what were they thinking?’

I’m not one of those people that subscribes to the notion that just because they are a big company then there’s something immediately dubious about them, that distrust ought to be automatic, which seems to be the tenor of some of the contributions to the spiked debate so far. But it does appear that there is a certain dysfunctional operational structure within the company so that nobody even recognises that collecting private wifi data might be slightly problematic. Hence, when the reports did come out, the way Google initially dealt with it was rather perfunctory. It was only when the media and the authorities began subjecting Google’s behaviour to increasing scrutiny that they started to take it a bit more seriously. The affair suggests certain levels of incompetence or unconscious behaviour on Google’s part that are quite surprising.

Part of the reason for the dysfunction is that the majority of the people who work in Google are engineers. They’re not social scientists or politicians or psychologists. Their view of the world is shaped by engineering. And they really do believe the company’s own philosophy: they do believe that information should be free; they do believe that they are trying to collect the world’s data and make this available to people. It is neither hype nor a cover for an ulterior motive. They are entirely sincere in their endeavours. They do believe that data and information is a universal good and should be available and should be used to make life better for people.

At one level, this does seem a very worthy philosophy for a company to hold. But as a consequence, Google’s bosses are learning that they have to mediate philosophy with real-world experience. In other words, when that vision comes up against the reality of the regulatory framework in which Google has to operate – which is a very complex one because they are a global company operating in different countries with different regulatory frameworks – it is confronted by the perceptions and positions of their customers. And here, in the living, breathing social world, Google has a very underdeveloped understanding of what the privacy issue is really about and why it is going to get the company into trouble if it does not follow certain procedures.

I suppose you could deem it naivety on Google’s part. Now, I’m sure Google’s head of communications Peter Barron, for instance, would argue that Google takes privacy very seriously. And no doubt it does, but only at certain levels of the company. I do not think an understanding of the privacy issue is built into the way Google actually develops its products. At the moment it looks as if the products are pretty much engineering-led.

Now, if I was head of Google, I certainly wouldn’t be worried about putting engineers on a privacy course to make them more sensitive to the issue. Rather, I think Google needs to have some sort of procedure whereby any product that is going out of the door will have been tested with users. At the very least, somebody who is responsible for privacy needs to have taken a look at it. And perhaps a very select number of people could consult with them and let people look at it and get some feedback to see if there are any potential problems. That in and of itself would not be foolproof because it would only be a small group of people.

The problem I’ve found in all the internet/IT-type companies in which I’ve had a bit of experience of working is the inability to grasp the concerns of the user. Because the engineers and so on in a company don’t see that there’s a problem with a particular product, they will assume that that’s what their customers will think, too. They substitute themselves for the customer.

Both at Orange and France Telecom, for instance, we would talk about mobile telephony and we would try to test a product, and ask, ‘is this really a problem?’, ‘are we solving the problem?’ and so on. And as much as you’d try to put yourself into the shoes of your customer, you can’t really manage it. What really brought it home to me was when I left Orange and I had to start paying for my own telephony. Suddenly, the world started changing in terms of the kind of things I wasn’t prepared to tolerate anymore because now all of a sudden I was in a different position – that of the customer. That barrier between how a company views its products and how its customers do is something that is very difficult to overcome.

What Google should do is work out a system that will allow them to grasp possible privacy concerns. In terms of something as complex and vast as Street View, it should have been clear to someone within the company that there were going to be problems. There should have been some kind of PR campaign around Street View so that people knew what was going on. If the vehicles were going into a town, Google could have warned people in advance, it could have had a dialogue with people. This may have added a lot of time and cost to the project, but it would have averted the problems which the company is now having to deal with anyway.

But there are broader problems with the issue of privacy. I have a certain degree of sympathy with Google CEO Eric Schmidt when he makes the point that in Britain you are getting photographed five or six times a day by CCTV and so on, yet where are the demonstrations on the street against that? So, on the one hand, there appears to be a very lax social attitude towards privacy, and on the other hand, people are suddenly complaining that their house is being photographed and is appearing on Google Maps or whatever. How can people be happy with CCTV and at the same time be worried about having a picture of their street on Google Maps?

I think that what this suggests is that Google needs to think seriously about the complexity of privacy today. This contradiction between concerns over Street View and the tolerance of the everyday intrusion of the state and other regulatory bodies into people’s lives is key here. One needs to grasp that this contradiction is precisely how privacy is experienced today. And unless an organisation like Google understands this subtle distinction, they are going to continue to get themselves into trouble.

Norman Lewis is the founding partner of Open-Knowledge UK Ltd. Read his blog here. He is a contributor to BIG POTATOES: The London Manifesto for Innovation. He was talking to Tim Black.

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

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