Disregarding privacy

Google should be criticised for harvesting personal data, but its blasé attitude to privacy is hardly original.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

‘I requested this debate because of my concern—and that of many others, including honourable members here today—about what I term the privatised surveillance society. By that, I mean the surveillance of individual citizens by advanced internet companies.’ So stated Conservative MP Robert Halfon at a House of Commons debate last Thursday.

The principal prompt for Halfon’s concern was not any old internet company. It was Google. Lovely, hippy-happy Google, a company that up until recently was synonymous with all that glittered about the internet, from its cutting-edge, innovative allure to its democratising, life-enhancing potential. As its co-founder Larry Page explained in 2004: ‘We have a mantra: “Don’t be evil”, which is to do the best things we know how for our users, for our customers, for everyone. So I think if we were known for that, it would be a wonderful thing.’

And, for a time, Google was perhaps known for that. But no more. Anti-trust actions, dubious advertising methods and, above all, gross invasions of privacy have sullied Google’s do-no-evil reputation. And no single product has done more damage to Google than Street View, its photo-map service.

Initially, complaints centred upon the photos themselves. There was the embarrassment of a man who was caught smoking, despite telling his partner he’d quit, and the threat posed to a woman who’d fled her abusive husband only to find her refuge revealed online. But then came reports that not only had Google Street View vehicles snapped people against their wishes, they had also been harvesting private wi-fi data transmitted over any unencrypted networks.

That is, private emails, passwords and URLs had been captured by a piece of technology attached to the Google Street View vehicles and then stored. Despite Google’s protestations that it was a mistake, an accident that had happened as part of the company’s attempt to improve its location services, officials in various countries were not convinced. As a result, state investigations were launched in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, while Greece and the Czech Republic simply banned Street View.

Despite the declaration of the UK’s Information Commissioner earlier this year that Google had no case to answer, the increasing parliamentary interest in the matter suggests that the controversy is unlikely to go away. In fact, if anything, pressure for official action of some sort is likely to increase. Alex Deane, director of privacy campaign group, Big Brother Watch, is unequivocal. He tells me: ‘I think what Google did in their wi-fi capture was extremely serious. It was without doubt the largest intrusion into privacy ever to happen in the private sector in the United Kingdom. Normally to do something this intrusive, you’ve got to have government help.’

By and large, the criticism coming Google’s way is deserved: it treated the privacy of individuals with, at best, complacency and, at worst, contempt. But unlike state surveillance of individuals, the reasons for Google intrusion into people’s private existence remain obscure. Deane attempts to explain it in terms of the company’s view of the world: ‘The guys at Google have this almost evangelical belief in the importance of accumulating information, almost for the sake of accumulating information.’

This does touch upon something. As Andrew Orlowski, executive editor of the Register, explained to spiked, those designing and engineering Google products do not really see individuals as anything more than repositories of information. They have ‘a cybernetic view of the world’, he says, adding: ‘To them, the world is little more than a system. And in that system, human autonomy plays a very small part, if it plays any part at all… They are contemptuous of the idea of a human being as a sovereign, an individual making their own decisions and choices. In a cybernetic view of the world there is just information flowing between nodes. It’s not really a human-centric view of the world at all and that’s the big problem with privacy at the moment: the people who are designing the services are nerds.’

But this blasé attitude to privacy, this view of the world as potentially entirely public, is not Google’s problem alone. Rather it reflects the ambiguous cultural value of privacy. This perhaps explains Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s almost flippant attitude to privacy concerns. It’s as if he feels it’s something that is not taken seriously, hence his half-jocular tone. In a CNN interview last month, he responded to a question about Street View cameras taking pictures of people’s houses, saying that if they have a problem with it, they ‘can just move, right?’ To a question about using human implants he retorted ‘Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it’. And most tellingly of all, he invoked that almost hackneyed defence of the surveillance society: ‘If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.’

Schmidt and Google are not blazing a trail in privacy violation here; they are simply taking advantage of a well-trodden path. For privacy, as Josie Appleton has argued on spiked, has passed from being a supreme bourgeois virtue to being the condition for vice. The private man or woman is viewed with suspicion while the public version, whether displayed on Facebook or in a reality TV show, is celebrated as normal. It’s for this reason that to want to avoid the gaze of a third party, whether it’s that of state CCTV or that of a private company, suggests, as Schmidt recognised, that you have something to hide.

The recognition that privacy has been devalued in wider society also raises a problem with Halfon’s proposal for an internet bill of rights. For while it’s possible to respect online privacy in law, to do so culturally is a far harder task.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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