Google’s “Search” for Personal Online Information

A regulatory agency in Europe is requesting more information from Google on their privacy policies, saying that the answers that Google has provided to them thus far have been inadequate.  Since Google changed their privacy policy earlier this year, European regulators have been questioning their strength and whether or not the policies meet the letter of the law in Europe, where privacy laws are much more stringent than in the United States.

The concerns over Google’s respect for privacy arise after a number of incidents that have concerned both consumers and government officials for some time.  Most recently the concern has been over the aforementioned change in Google’s privacy policy, which was a result of Google’s merging of data between its many different products.  This merging of data will allow Google to put all of the data they collect on users into one large database, thus allowing for more information and a better way to sell ads to its advertisers.

Perhaps more concerning is the revelation in 2010 that Google had been using its Streetview cars to collect data on private citizens via their wireless networks.  As Google’s high-tech cars drove up and down cities, neighborhood streets and rural roadways, its cars were skimming the private, but unprotected networks of private citizens, accessing things like emails, passwords, photographs, and even chat messages.  The New York Times does a great job of detailing the initial breach of privacy that Google committed, but what many will find most disturbing is what many might perceive as the ducking and diving of responsibility, and attempting to cover up what the cars were actually doing.  At first, Google claimed that the data was collected by accident, the result of some experimental software being included in the software running the Streetview cars.  But European regulators found that Google was doing a lot more than it claimed.  Google seemed to be using the data they were collecting for research purposes, and were also using data collected from Wi-Fi services to improve its location-based services.  When pressed about why they initially kept this a secret from regulators, Google claimed that they didn’t think it was relevant to let anyone know they were doing such a thing.

Consumers are right to have concerns over the privacy protection that the world’s largest search engine affords its users.  Google is often found to be collecting data on people who aren’t even users of their service—or even using a site that is a Google customer, for that matter.  For their part, Google claims that what they are doing with their Streetview cars is perfectly legal.  Wiretapping aside, it may very well be.  If people don’t protect their home networks, it can be expected that their data could be viewed and used.  But others would argue that just as wandering into a stranger’s home merely because the door is unlocked would be trespassing, it’s also true that this should be construed to be the same.

Zack Christenson writes on digital tech issues for the American Consumer Institute

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