MOLLY SCHOEMANN: Right now a debate rages as to whether Google grossly overstepped its bounds by collecting and saving the data of users on wireless unencrypted networks for around 3 years. Frankly, I don’t see how there is any way that Google’s actions are defensible. Even if, as the company’s management claims, higher-ups were actually unaware that this data was being gathered, then the issue is still concerning, because it means that Google has some huge issues as far as supervising its employees or even being aware of what they are doing. And ultimately, I find their sing-song “we didn’t know it was going on,” defense to be pretty unbelievable. Really, Google? For 3 years, mountains of private citizens’ data was being recorded and stored by your company, and none of the employees who were recording it ever said, ‘Hey, is this thing on? ’ In 3 years? Nobody ever came across the saved files and said, ‘Huh, what is this information and why are we collecting and storing it?’ I suppose this is why Google’s company motto isn’t “Don’t Be Willfully Ignorant”. If the company’s claims are true, and they really had no idea that this data collection was happening, then at the very least it would mean that Google operates pretty much like any other bumbling, corporate bureaucracy. It’s kind of like finding out that there’s no Santa, or that his elves, with or without his knowledge, save and store the records of which children have been naughty or nice for some unknown purpose.
In fact, Google’s famous ‘Don’t Be Evil’ company motto is receiving further scrutiny these days. Upon first blush it seems very hip and fun, the way Google itself seems, with its primary-colored logo and its funny name. ‘We’re like you, except in a billion dollar company!’ it seems to say. ‘Who likes evil? Not us!’ Still, when you think about it, evil is not always easy to define. There are a lot of grey areas, and what’s evil to me might be considered normal and necessary to, perhaps, a huge oil company or, say, a West Virginia coal mine.
It is also unclear at whom the phrase is actually being directed. Now that I think about it, the motto very well could be Google’s way of telling consumers not to be evil, and by ‘evil’ they mean, ‘concerned with their own privacy’ or maybe ‘questioning of Google’s motives’. Man. We should probably stop being so evil. I am disturbed by the arguments of those who defend Google’s actions by stating that people who use unencrypted wireless networks are essentially asking for their data and information to be recorded by others. Perhaps their surfing habits are not password protected, but does this make them public knowledge? The last time I checked, the data of the kind Google was accused of collecting is not exactly left lying around on a park bench somewhere. Picking it up is not as easy as picking up someone’s dropped shopping list or reading their open diary. And even if it were, would that make it right? Just because my data is not locked up, does that mean it is no longer mine? Is it up for grabs? Is it morally right for someone else to snatch it up without my permission or knowledge? If I leave my diary out, and you read it, sure it’s partly my fault. But it’s your fault too!
The Supreme Court’s recent momentous (or monstrous, depending on your definition of ‘evil’) verdict declaring that corporations have the same rights as people as far as making donations to political candidates has raised an interesting issue as far as Google’s current quandary is concerned. If a corporation is to be treated like a person, then shouldn’t it be held to the same moral standards as a person? Especially when it’s a corporate person who preaches to us about evilness.
For the last few years, Google has built up a reputation as the Fun internet company. It’s young, it’s hip; everyone wants to be seen hanging out with it. But just because we’ve all been out with having a few beers and a few laughs with Google doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say anything when it rifles through our belongings while we’re in the can. You might be our friend, Google, but if you cross the line, we’ll still call you out on it. We have to make sure you know what our boundaries are and that they need to be respected—otherwise, you might grow bolder, and who knows what you might do next.
AKIE BERMISS: I’m with Molly — I fear Google. I find their hippy-dippy branding to be way over the top. Five years ago, it was hip and wonderful and exciting. Now its such obvious pandering as to seem malicious. I’m not saying I hate Google — I use Gmail, google calendars and documents, blogger, and my main browser is Chrome — but I think that when you get to a certain level of power and ownership it can become nearly impossible not to be an overbearing presence.
Trouble is, once I resolve myself to that realization, I discover I am no longer impressed with the data-hoarding that Google (or any other big-name online franchises) do. So they drove around for three years and collected data about everyone on an unprotected network. So what? I’m not defending Google taking the stuff, but I am thinking that perhaps this is a teachable moment for folks. The uproar is over Google traveling around and collecting all this data and how every un-password-protected network got inadvertently hit, but no one is talking about the fact that Google basically came forward and say, “Holy crap — did you see what we did? By accident?!” And they’ve made every effort to indicate that they plan to get rid of the information. So impugn Google all you like — but despite their mammoth size and influence, they keep doing well by their users.
And I think its just a little ridiculous that so many people are reading about this, getting upset, and still doing nothing to protect their wireless networks. Meaning that if some company came along and started stealing information — they can do so with nearly no resistance. If some evil-er company came along and their slogan, “Screw you — we’re mean” they could just walk around collecting all your information!
Let this be a teachable moment, America. If you’re going to live in the present with the internet and iPhones and iPads, then you’re going to have to get hip to what is required to keep that technology safe. When cars were first introduce, there were no licenses and/or road tests. Just people buying and driving cars. Same goes for the internet, if you’re a frequent user you need to start thinking about how to customize your network, optimize bandwidth, and keep your information secure. Its time we realized that having a unprotected network is like leaving the door to your house open when you’re not there. Its not like television which turns off when you hit a button. The internet keeps coming and going. Information gets downloaded and uploaded non-stop. If you have a program like Gmail, you realize the benefit of such an exhaustive system. Still, its scary to think that my emails, downloads, and more are all available for someone else’s leisurely perusal. The answer is not to tell an entity like Google or Facebook to: do less. They will keep innovating whether you have juicy emails or not.
The answer is, of course, to govern your information more precisely. Lock up those networks. Its not brain science, nearly anyone can do it. So just do it! Do it and this will never happen to you again. Google is fine — they mean you know harm. Nothing deliberate, at least. So why vilify them when there are REAL tech companies out there ( some are music, video games, videos) and that want to know all about you so they can know exactly how you think. What you want to buy and such. Beware the smaller, less establish companies that have no problem crawling over you to get to the top.
As for Google: give them a free pass. Let them out of jail free, this time. But remember, as always: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Be not evil, indeed. But know that your power corrupts as it is corrupted. Check and double-check those code-lines, Google. And try to stay out of my hair for a bit, would ya?!
DAVE TOMAR: Not necessarily an afterthought, but perhaps a jumping off point, I think there’s another level to this issue of privacy on the Internet. The claim that Google might have acted unethically is almost secondary to the careless ways in which we have provided this enormous, monolithic portal with something to compile.
We live in a highly voyeuristic society where people seem to want to volunteer private information all the time. I am absolutely floored by the willingness of people to communicate about breakups, firings, bankruptcy filings and the death of loved ones via Facebook. Indeed, I have learned all of these things from or about strangers thusly, and I only sign onto Facebook so I can formally ignore friend requests.
Throw ‘reality television’ based celebrity into the mix and people have aggressively surrendered their privacy in exchange for the narcissistic view that we can be noticed by others and leave a mark on the world, even if it is just a media footprint. The Warholian 15 minutes of fame has been critically devalued. In theory, everybody gets the 15 minutes. But it used to be for good reasons like foiling convenience-store robberies, winning local bake-offs or finding a Rembrandt lodged between the pipes in your attic.
Now, you just tell everybody in the world exactly what you’re doing at all times and hope that somebody gives a crap enough to click the ‘thumbs up’ icon.
Joe Saltynuts is microwaving a frozen burrito even though the instructions say use a convection oven.
Lisa Cultjam is itchy and regrets a brief truck-stop dalliance with an unknown stranger.
Suzy Poot is sad, thinking of suicide and is using her Facebook profile as a cry for help
Don’t get me wrong. I think Facebook is a great way to find out who got fat since you were little kids. But every detail of your life could just as easily be a search engine term. So with respect to the ‘stealing’ of private information, perhaps it is the case that the stock of privacy has just gone down. People don’t demand it and therefore, others don’t grant it.