Google is under fire again for privacy issues related to the data it collects. Around the world, governments, privacy advocates, and individuals are concerned that Google may know too much and can’t be trusted to protect the sanctity of the data it has acquired. More attention should be devoted to why the data was available to Google, though, rather than what it might do with it or whether it can be trusted to protect it.
The United Kingdom’s privacy watchdog is re-examining the data gathered from private Wi-Fi networks by Google with its StreetView cars. Italy has imposed new rules that Google must mark its StreetView vehicles (as if the bizarre camera array mounted on top isn’t “marking” enough), and provide three days advanced warning before rolling into town. Germany, Canada, and governments around the world continue to scrutinize Google over perceived privacy violations.
Many of the privacy concerns, however, are not really a function of Google. Google is simply the high-profile messenger making communities and users aware of just how exposed they are. It is part of a common and growing privacy backlash trend that misdirects blame at third-party organizations rather than taking personal responsibility.
Did Google collect Wi-Fi data–including sensitive information like usernames and passwords? Yes. It has admitted as much. But, Google didn’t do anything wrong to get that data. It’s more like someone gave Google a $20 bill, then turned around and accused Google of theft.
Imagine this scenario. A man is walking in the park with his zipper down, and doesn’t realize it. A woman, while taking pictures of her child playing on the swings, captures a picture of this man in the background in all his exposed glory. When it is discovered that the woman inadvertently took an inappropriate photo of the man, she is accused of being some sort of perverted stalker.
The issue isn’t that Google invaded anyone’s privacy by gathering and retaining the Wi-Fi data. The issue is that many businesses and homes are like the man in the park with his zipper down–operating insecure wireless networks that are constantly transmitting these types of sensitive data for anyone to intercept.
Even if the woman taking the pictures truly is a perverted stalker and had intent to capture the inappropriate photos, prosecuting her won’t change the fact that the guy is still walking around the park with his zipper down.
That is essentially what occurred with the Google StreetView Wi-Fi “incident”. Google didn’t “hack” wireless networks. It collected the wireless data that was freely flying through the air. Even if Google completely shut down the StreetView program today, it wouldn’t change the fact that these homes and businesses are still broadcasting sensitive data on unencrypted wireless networks and that others with less honorable intentions than Google can still intercept it.
Instead of freaking out over the data inadvertently gathered by Google, privacy advocates and government organizations should be focused on resolving the underlying issue by educating people to “zip their pants” when it comes to protecting the sensitive data on their wireless networks. Don’t persecute Google for gathering the sensitive data unknowingly broadcast to the general public, teach businesses and individuals how to secure and protect their wireless data.
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