Google to feel the pain for drive-by data theft

18 May 2010

Facebook’s latest privacy furore reminds us what we already knew – a “for sale” sign goes on all Facebook personal data.

Web cleverdicks have observed that Facebook’s new privacy policy was longer than the US Constitution and have amused themselves pointing to this Heath Robinson-like graphic.

But that’s Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg thinks we’re “dumb f---s” for giving him our information.

It’s the do-gooders at Google who have us gob-smacked. Its StreetView program – Google’s grand plan to photograph every urban street in the civilized world - has always had privacy question marks over it. They’ve now been replaced by red flags.

Google has admitted its StreetView cars Europe have been sniffing Wi-Fi networks and retaining all the data they’ve caught. As the cars drove down quiet city streets, they “mistakenly” collected information being transmitted – personal photos, emails, financial transactions, details on websites visited, etc.

Google blamed a programming error and has been mocked for saying so. (Connoisseurs of privacy cockups will recall Facebook’s notorious software “glitch” that exposed everyone’s private data and likewise Google’s Buzz.)

“So everything was a simple oversight, a software error,” wrote Peter Schaar, Germany's federal commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, on his official blog.

“The data was collected and stored against the will of the project's managers and other managers at Google. If we follow this logic further, this means: The software was installed and used without being properly tested beforehand.”

Worse than sarcasm, the legal retribution is coming in thick and fast. Google faces prosecution in Germany, where collection of such data is illegal, as well as probes from European Commission’s data protection agencies and the US Federal Trade Commission.

“This may be one of the most massive surveillance incidents by a private corporation that has ever occurred”, said Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre.

This is a massive one for Google, which has in its data vaults more private information about more people than any other business in the world. Its whole business turns on its data trustworthiness.

Asian consumers are no less sensitive about having their personal information abused, even if some Asian governments are among the worst abusers. Now that Google has been found out, citizens here will put their telcos, banks, ISPs and government agencies under more critical scrutiny.

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