Google is well known for the motto “Don’t Be Evil.” But behind the scenes the company’s executives seem to be guided by a different principle: Don’t Get Caught Being Evil.
A German regulatory audit of the Google Street View project has forced the information giant to admit that employees accidentally grabbed about 600 gigabytes of personal data while driving past unsecured Wi-Fi networks in over 30 countries. “Information gathered by the cars’ antennae could include parts of an email, text or photograph or even the website someone may be viewing,” the Telegraph reports.
“It’s now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) WiFi networks, even though we never used that data in any Google products,” explains Alan Eustace, senior vice president for engineering and research at Google.
Don’t you hate when you accidentally go war driving and then “mistakenly” capture and store 600 gigs of personal information from people’s home networks? Time for Google to break out the heavy artillery: trembling lower lips, sniffling noses, and big ol’ puppy dog eyes brimming with tears.
The engineering team at Google works hard to earn your trust—and we are acutely aware that we failed badly here. We are profoundly sorry for this error and are determined to learn all the lessons we can from our mistake.
Eustace also wants you to know that while the company made a boo boo, it’s really no biggie because 1) they “collected only fragments of payload data,” and 2) they “did not collect information traveling over secure, password-protected WiFi networks.” Translation: what we did was wrong, but if your information is sitting on Google’s servers right now, it’s pretty much your fault.
From a public relations perspective, it’s probably the wrong time to point that out. But Eustace is right. Broadcasting unsecured data to everyone within range of your Wi-Fi router is akin to shouting family secrets while standing at the open living room window. If you’re concerned about keeping your secrets private, you have to shut the window. If you don’t want the folks at Google (or the pimply 13-year-old geek next door) snooping through your data, take five minutes to learn how to enable encryption on your wireless network.
It’s possible (though unlikely) that Google has violated wiretapping laws. But practically speaking, it’s your responsibility to secure your data.
Unfortunately for Google, the “y’all were kinda asking for it” approach doesn’t inspire much confidence in the company’s commitment to privacy. The public is left wondering, what other data are being collected without our knowledge and how is our personal information being used?
While Google failed on the public relations front, the company has grounded its Street View cars, promises to delete the ill-gotten information, and insists it will halt the project’s collection of Wi-Fi data. And at least Google execs didn’t call consumers “Dumb f-cks” for parting with private information as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg allegedly did.
If nothing else, this Friday news dump from Google is a valuable reminder that at its core, Google is a data mining company, the same one that determined it wasn’t an unforgivable evil to get into bed with the communist Chinese government. Possible legal violations aside, it should shock no one to discover that Google is taking every opportunity to amass data. If companies that deal in information can’t get your data through war driving and dangling “free” services in front of your nose, they’ll find another way. What you put out there is up to you.