Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Google Defends Anti-Privacy Actions, Silicon Valley Prepares for a Fight

In case you were thinking Google might admit to wrongdoing and come clean on their latest anti-privacy debacle - the Wi-Spy scandal - you'd be wrong.

Remember what's still at stake for the Google's and Facebook's of the world: Pending internet privacy legislation that MIGHT significantly cut into their ability to make big bucks off user information.

So its in these corporate giant interests to continue to deny, obfuscate, and misdirect.

And let's face it, Google is becoming a champion at all of the above, ala other big time DC players BP, Goldman Sachs, and Merck.

Check out my last post for more details on the Wi-Spy scandal (and many other posts before it for that matter). For now though, here's Google's general response to the questions they have been ordered to answer:

Yes, its Street View cars collected Wi-Fi data in late 2007 and they were fitted on all of Google's Street View cars by early 2008. And yes, the collected Wi-Fi data included MAC addresses, SSID, signal strength, data rate, channel of broadcast and encryption method. But, it says it was only done to improve the accuracy of location-based services. Google stressed again that the collection of payload data was a mistake and that because the system changed channels five times a second, and the car was moving, it was unlikely to have collected more than small fragments.

But Google said it had not conducted any analysis to find out if this was true. In fact the payload data has only been accessed twice - once by the engineer who wrote the code and once as part of the investigation by Google.

The letter said Google had already deleted data collected in Ireland, Denmark and Austria at the request of data protection authorities in those countries, but it has kept the data in the US because of pending legal action.

Google said it did not believe it had broken any laws by accessing open networks. But the letter said: "We emphasize that being lawful and being the right thing to do are two different things, and that collecting payload data was a mistake for which we are profoundly sorry."

It said it was reviewing data collection for all its services to stop similar problems happening again. In total Google collected some 600GB of network data from 30 countries.

So, there you have Google's that I believe about as much as I believe that BP is going to be held adequately responsible for their wholesale destruction of the Gulf Coast.

In the meantime, I want to direct everybody to a good piece in the San Jose Mercury News the other day laying out Silicon Valley's preparation for the coming fight against privacy advocates and (hopefully) the government on issues that have been raised by the WATERFALL of recent revelations spurred by companies like Google and Facebook (which I have been reporting here for a long time now).

As I have said, the backdrop to all this is the major online privacy legislation being debated in Congress to curtail and regulate the myriad of ways consumer rights are being violated for profit every single day on the net by companies like these two. Let's face it, personal data is an industry of its own now, and the ability of these companies to mine it, share it and sell it, without our permission or knowledge, is worth BILLIONS in profits.

The Mercury News reports:

"While privacy concerns have ebbed and flowed, I think it is fair to say that they are at an all-time high now," said Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy for the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington-based nonprofit that works to protect both Internet innovation and privacy.

The conflict only intensified Friday after Google delivered a detailed response to the House Commerce Committee, denying that the company broke U.S. law when it inadvertently scooped up data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks as its Street View cars drove past private homes and businesses. That did not satisfy U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, co-chairman of the House Privacy Caucus, who called for hearings.

With the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., asking both Google and Facebook for a broader explanation of their privacy practices, the Federal Communications Commission in a post Friday on its official blog highlighted the security loophole that allowed the e-mail addresses of 114,000 users of Apple's new iPad to become accessible.

"Google's behavior also raises important concerns," wrote Joel Gurin, who heads FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. "Whether intentional or not, collecting information sent over Wi-Fi networks clearly infringes on consumer privacy."

The bill before Congress now would determine how Internet companies could collect personal data, and what warnings they would have to give to consumers.


In 2009, Google spent about $4 million on its lobbying efforts, up from $260,000 in 2005, according to U.S. Senate records. By the end of the first quarter of 2010, Google had already spent $182,800, nearly two-thirds of what it spent during the entire 2008 election cycle, in contributions to congressional candidates, according to federal data collected by


Privacy advocates say Silicon Valley, by using people's demographic data and online histories as the currency that pays for online services through targeted advertising, is causing the conflict with Washington.

"I think it is part of the shifting directions of Facebook and Google," said Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Silicon Valley has now gotten itself mired deeply in privacy-related business models. I think that's what Washington is reacting to."

But even members of Congress who represent Silicon Valley and say the ability of Internet companies to innovate must be protected, including Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, also say their constituents are concerned about their online privacy, and that hearings and privacy legislation may be necessary.

According to a joint poll by UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania, 55 percent of adults were more concerned about online privacy than they were five years ago and just 6 percent were less concerned. "People are very concerned about their data," said Joseph Turow, a professor at Penn's Annenberg School for Communication who worked on the poll, "but the way the world is today, you have to go online."

Once again, we've got a clear conflict between the public interest (as with Wall St, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Chemical, etc.) and corporate interests. It is these competing interests that continue to lock horns in DC and in state capitols across the country...with corporate interests and the almighty dollar nearly ALWAYS getting the upper hand...regardless of public opinion or verifiable fact.

Don't get me wrong, in no way am I saying that companies like Google do the kind of damage as do those other industries I listed (or Facebook for that matter) that would be absurd (Goldman Sachs and BP's of world are in their own universe). What I am saying is the corporate ethos is clear: maximize profit for when billions of dollars are at stake, the public interest is what gets left behind...

This internet privacy legislation epitomizes this conflict, and will far in determining which direction our country as it relates to this new, information and data industry versus the privacy rights of Americans.

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