The Cookie Monster is at it again. The "Do No Evil" One has been forced to admit that since 2006 it has systematically collected and retained private data obtained as its spy camera vehicles cruised the streets of Europe and the US compiling Street View content. Martyn Warwick reports.
The revelation has angered European privacy organisations and regulatory bodies. Most annoyed is the German privacy regulator. Under Germany's stringent privacy laws the sort of eavesdropping to which Google has belatedly admitted is unequivocally illegal.
Commenting, Ilse Aigner, Germany's Minister of Consumer Protection said, “Based on the information we have before us, it seems that Google has illegally tapped into private networks in violation of German law. This is alarming and further evidence that privacy law is a foreign concept to Google. We demand that this matter be explained to us in the greatest detail and we require a full accounting."
Johannes Caspar, the data protection supremo for the city of Hamburg, expressed similar outrage on behalf of the entire German population and of the Federal Government. He said Google's much-delayed admission that it has been routinely and continually involved in the illegal collection of data will be pursued by a specially constituted tribunal of the heads of European national data protection agencies. That panel will report to the European Commission. “This is a data scandal of great magnitude. We are talking here about the large-scale collection of private data on individuals. We will take action to end this", he said.
For its part, Google admits that as the Street View vehicles recorded images to hard disk and they also eavesdropped on unencrypted residential wireless local area networks and from them garnered and kept details of websites being accessed by individuals and the content of email and other messages.
The company also admits that it had been deliberately collecting data on locations of wireless networks to "improve geolocation for mobile devices." Quite how this squares with conflicting claims that the eavesdropping was "accidental" is not yet apparent.
Originally Google said the wireless network data collected comprised just two pieces of information - the eavesdropped device's MAC address (the publicly broadcast ID number of a device) and the SSID (the name assigned to a device by its owner or user). However, Google later changed its story and admitted that the Street View vehicles also took snapshots of web sites visited and emails in transit.
Even so, and despite the ever-expanding revelations of the degree of surveillance carried out by its fleet of Street View vehicles, Google continues to maintain that the illicit data collection was "inadvertent and the result of a programming error".
However, Peter Schaar, Germany's Federal Commissioner for Data Protection is sceptical about Google's protestations.
In a damning web submission he wrote, ‘‘So everything was a simple oversight, a software error! What's more,the data was collected and stored against the will of the project's managers and other managers at Google. So, if we follow this logic further, it means: The software was installed and used without being properly tested beforehand. Billions of bits of data were mistakenly collected, without anyone in Google noticing it, including Google's own internal data protection managers, who two weeks ago were defending to us the company's internal data protection practices.''
Kai Oberbeck, a Google mouthpiece and apparatchik in Hamburg, who has been given the unenviable task of explaining all this away as a storm in a teacup and a matter of no importance, says the Cookie Monster is "in contact with data protection officials in Germany and in the rest of Europe to address their concerns." I'll bet it is!
In a statement Mr. Overback wrote, “This was obviously a mistake, and we are profoundly sorry". Let's hope Google will shortly be made profoundly sorrier still.
The company could hardly have picked a worse country to come a cropper over online privacy. Tens of thousands of German citizens have already petitioned the authorities demanding that images of their properties, collected and displayed without permission, be removed from Street View. The steady trickle of complainants is now likely to become a torrent and Google's apologies and claims that it is now "working in conjunction" with European regulators to "help" it delete all the data it has illegally accessed and recorded is unlikely to to settle the issue or reassure people. Claims for monetary compensation loom and prosecution is far from being out of the question.
Simon Davies, the director of Privacy International, an umbrella organisation representing a coalition of privacy organisations in 40 countries, put popular reaction succinctly, "This is going to damage the company [Google] irreparably. Three years ago the company was wearing a halo. But over the past year it has moved substantially in the direction of being perceived as Big Brother."
Yes. And as we know he's watching you, and you, and you, and you and....
like this are also fresh bullets in the armoury of those who are against the development of Cloud computing. And, serendipitously, tomorrow, Tuesday, May 18, Telecom TV is conducting a live global debate on the pros and cons of Cloud Computing. Vital viewing!
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