Online privacy concerns and violations are becoming more and more common every day. In Google’s case—and Facebook’s as well—these privacy concerns stem mainly from the way these companies practice their business, i.e. the way they make money and the way they’re able to offer their services for free. And though these practices aren’t actually any different from what they were 10 years ago, the public has become more aware of what’s going on and how it’s affecting their online identity. Believe me, this awareness is a good thing, in fact, it’s the whole purpose of this website. So I love to see these issues—minor or major—brought to the table and questioned by the public.
If you aren’t aware of what happened over at Google recently, here’s a quick rundown. Basically, if you’ve ever used the Streets feature in Google Maps then you’ll have a good idea why this incident became such an issue.
Based on what I’ve read, Germany was the first to discover that as Google’s Street View cars drove from neighborhood to neighborhood, they were collecting private information from homes via their WiFi networks—specifically those that were unencrypted (without a security password). What kind of information? According to the Washington Post: Internet browsing history, passwords, and personal emails—basically enough to become a real problem. The software that Google uses in their Street cars is actually meant to compile WiFi network location data for geographic location purposes. But as Google made clear in their apology, the software wasn’t meant to collect that much data. (A special warning goes out to those who often use free WiFi hot spots in public places like Starbucks or Barnes & Noble. These WiFi networks are almost always unencrypted).
So now the FCC is stepping in with an investigation to see what communication laws Google violated. According to The Washington Post, the FTC closed their investigation last month when Google promised to delete the information they collected and “beef up privacy training for their employees”.
In the overall scheme of things, this incident along with the privacy concerns that surround Facebook, have industry executives asking for privacy regulations. Peter Cullen, the chief privacy strategist for Microsoft (who spoke at the 2010 Family Online Safety Institute’s annual conference); and Michael Fertik, the founder of Reputation Defender, are just a couple of executives who have strong feelings that the federal government needs to pass regulations that force Internet firms to give consumers more control over who has access to their personal information. And I agree with these men. But the concern leads back to the same issue: if we want Google and Facebook to stop collecting our online data or tracking our online behavior, then we’re asking them to find alternative ways to make a profit, and the one obvious route that they can take is to start charging for their services. Right now these companies are making billions off of selling user data to advertisers and marketers, and asking them to stop would essentially change their whole business model. Going back to Google’s “mistake”, do you think that this would’ve happened in the first place if there were strict Internet privacy regulations in place? Of course not. So where does the line get drawn? How far will these companies go to collect the data they need to turn a profit? My guess is pretty far as long as there aren’t any laws that forbid them to do so.