Google is being cheeky. In fact, according to the London-based pressure group Privacy International, it may well have behaved in a criminal way. The bone of contention here is that the search company has been accumulating Wi-Fi data for its Street View mapping project using a system that ‘intentionally separated out unencrypted content (payload data) of communications and systematically wrote this data to hard drives’ (BBC, Jun 9). Material including personal emails was captured ‘in error’.
According to PI, such activity was the equivalent of ‘placing a hard tap and digital recorder into a phone wire without consent or authorization.’ The result: Google is possibly violating interception laws in as many as 30 countries.
The Germans have been one of the first to express an interest in chasing Google on the road of thorny litigation for their accumulation of this data. German laws allow for the imposition of sentences anywhere up to two years imprisonment. In May, a court in Hamburg opened a criminal investigation into the giant’s activities, arguing that the company had been securing data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks. The German Information Commissioner has demanded that a hard-disk be handed over for a proper examination of what exactly has been collected.
The Australian government has also been brooding over Google’s conduct. The Communications Minister Stephen Conroy referred the case to the federal police and the privacy commissioner once he was made privy to the illicit collection of 600 gigabytes by Google. His words were strong, even hyperbolic – Google had intentionally engineered the ‘single greatest breach in the history of privacy’.
In the United States, the head of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative John Conyers Jr of Michigan has urged Google and Facebook to cooperate with government inquiries into privacy.
What will be Google’s list of desperate defenses? One is lack of intent – a few cyber enthusiasts remain to be convinced that such a gathering of information was based on a concerted, calculated effort to tap the information. It’s either the politicians making populist mileage out of corporate delinquency or Google being sinister or indifferent to privacy. The results are the same either way: Corporate Big Brother is eagerly gathering and making use of personal data. Governments who have done something similar will be jealous at their corporate rivals.
Another stock-in-trade excuse is coming to the fore: it was the work of an errant individual beavering away in a haze of technological wizardry. In this case, it was an engineer who implemented an experimental program called gslite that was never intended to be used for the Street View project. The attempt by Google to extricate themselves from the situation has been farcical, though this should not surprise students of the corporate sector. Individuals such as this suspect engineer could hardly have devised such a system, let alone seen its implementation, without company endorsement (money and the like).
Whether the conduct of the internet giant was actuated by intention or negligence remains to be seen. The very fact that such behaviour exists will worry the public. They have every reason to be. Cyberspace was always going to be the borderless world of informational nihilism, and the recent revelations reveal who those nihilistic practitioners are.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org