Googleâ€™s snooping into wireless network data via its Street View carsâ€”behavior that triggered a Federal Communications Commission investigation, as well as multiple lawsuitsâ€”is back in the news via a report on Tuesday from the New York Times that identifies the engineer behind the project. But while there has been much public outrage about what Google (GOOG) did, itâ€™s interesting to note that even the FCC said the companyâ€™s data capturing wasnâ€™t illegal because the networks in question were effectively public. (The Federal Trade Commission also dropped a similar case.) Is this a sign of how broken the laws around privacy are, or is the Street View furor an overreaction?
The latest information about the case comes from internal Google documents that were given to the FCC as part of its investigationâ€”documents showing that the capture of data other than a Wi-Fi networkâ€™s location (which Google engineers referred to as â€œpayload dataâ€) was in fact deliberate and fairly widely known within the company. This contrasts with Googleâ€™s official response after the snooping was first discovered, in which the company described it as something that occurred accidentally while Street View cars were driving around taking photos, the result of a single engineerâ€™s side project.
Privacy advocate Chris Soghoian says the FCC should be hauled before a Congressional committee for having failed to reveal this information sooner. Some commenters on Twitter and elsewhere have suggested Google should be fined millions of dollars for what it did. Some are even declaring that the engineer in questionâ€”who invoked the Fifth AmendmentÂ in refusing to testify during the FCC investigationâ€”should be sent to prison for his involvement in the project. Said Soghoian: â€œ[N]othing prevented the agency from alerting the public, the media, and Congress to the full extent of Googleâ€™s sins. Instead, the agency opted to keep the public in the dark.â€
But if the behavior was so sinful, why did the FCC decide Google did nothing wrong? According to the federal regulator, capturing data in such a way doesnâ€™t break any laws because the Wi-Fi networks in question were broadcasting the information publicly over the airwaves. In a defense of Googleâ€™s behavior, technology blogger Mike Elgan argued something similar: Since the data was being transmitted in an unencrypted fashion into a public space, Google did nothing wrong in capturing it. This is no different from eavesdropping on conversations in a public space or looking over someoneâ€™s shoulder at what they are reading, Elgan says,
Most of the response to the snooping, however, takes the opposite positionâ€”namely, that Google invaded peopleâ€™s privacy by doing this and that even taking snapshots of data that exists on a Wi-Fi network while driving by someoneâ€™s house is like reading their mail.
Reading someoneâ€™s mail is an interesting analogy because of course, Google already does that. It has been doing it since the company launched its Web-based Gmail service in 2004. Just as there is now a fuss about Wi-Fi payloads and other kinds of automated â€œsnooping,â€ there was initially a substantial outcry about Gmail and the idea that Google was going to be reading every message people sent, albeit in an automated way. (Google executive Marissa Mayer was reportedly concerned about this issue.) The idea that anyone would be upset by this now seems almost quaint and old-fashioned.
Much of the debate about Googleâ€™s Wi-Fi sniffing veers back and forth between different perceptions of what is appropriate behavior and what isnâ€™t. In a number of European countries such as Germany, even taking photos of someoneâ€™s home without their permission is hugely controversial, so itâ€™s no surprise that capturing e-mails and chat messages (even if no one other than government regulators and lawyers ever read them) is seen as a heinous invasion of privacy. But in the U.S., taking photos and even recordings in public places is legal.
As my colleague Stacey Higginbotham pointed out recently, it is difficult to find exactly where the â€œcreepyâ€ line is until you cross it. But what makes it even harder is that the line shifts, depending on whom you are asking: There was a huge amount of outrage about the Girls Around Me app because it showed where women were located, even though they had chosen to share that information publicly. Kashmir Hill, who writes about privacy for Forbes, said the reaction from many critics was creepier than the app and that many young women choose deliberately to share this kind of information.
As Hill put it: â€œWe increasingly live in a â€˜creepyâ€™ world, in which we can find and manipulate information in unforeseeable ways. These new information flows sometimes feel â€˜creepyâ€™ because theyâ€™re new, unfamiliar, and to some people, unexpected.â€
The other common response to the Google Wi-Fi case is to argue that many users arenâ€™t aware that information from their wireless networks is effectively being broadcast publicly unless they choose to lock their network. But how far should we go in protecting people from the consequences of their own behavior? If Google captures data from your network while driving past your house, is that Googleâ€™s fault or yours? If you canâ€™t figure out how curtains work and someone looks in your window, do you have the right to get angry?
The devices we carry with us everywhere broadcast details about our locations, as well as all kinds of â€œdigital exhaustâ€ that could be (and probably is being) captured. Some of that is done deliberately and some isnâ€™t. Some of it is likely leaking because users canâ€™t be bothered to learn about or check their default settings or privacy controls. Is it even possible to hold the companies involved responsible for thisâ€”and if so, should we?
Also from GigaOM:
Google Doesnâ€™t Like Walled Gardensâ€”Except Its Own (subscription required)