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FTC Clears Google. Won’t You?

Ahh Street Viewgate, the scandal that never ends. Well actually yesterday a step was made in that direction with the US Federal Trade Commission, initially prompted by politicians of most states to break Google’s balls in pursuit of political claptraps much to the chagrin of Consumer Watchdog (who by the way still uses Google Analytics on their website), wrapping up its probe while securing another pledge from Google to make a better effort in the future with regards to privacy.

But, sadly, that doesn’t mean the rest of the world has left them off the hook. Google’s goal is to roll Street View out throughout the entire world, perhaps magically inside of buildings too. They’ve covered a lot of turf, but have a long way to drive to realize that dream and the terrain ahead is rough with potholes of angry people, Europeans mostly, Italy, the UK and Germany in particular, still all fired up about it and that terrain is not within the FTC’s jurisdiction.

Check out this fun live interactive map of Google Street View’s political and legal woes across the globe (in addition to a coverage map that link also lets you pull up where Google is currently driving around in case you live in that area and want to make some stupid signs and buy a megaphone. It’s crazy, all those blue things you can click on for more information:

Shifting from the backstory to my rant, these are some facts (or my contentions at least) worth considering in my latest request for you to give Google a pass on this mess: Google discovered the data themselves and promptly disclosed it to the world and the proper channels of the involved countries, IE not the CIA, Facebook and dataminers, immediately. No whistles were blown, no investigations or probes were probing. They had an opportunity to quietly put all those hard drives in a really big hard drive which they didn’t take.

What, Google couldn’t keep a secret like this? Remember the robot cars? That was a pretty big deal with a lot of people involved, an awe-inspiring operation, and they kept it under wraps until they surfaced on their own schedule with a blog post heard ‘round the world. This was an option to them with Street Viewgate, but, a few incidents notwithstanding, Google does try to do good – but by definition Google’s human (corpus, Latin for body of people). Religious leaders preach that all men sin, including themselves, but we should still strive to make a reasonable effort to avoid doing bad and in the event of failure to atone for it somehow. So maybe you should aim that finger 180 degrees away from Google, buddy.

The data in question, had they opted to let themselves get away of it, would be of absolutely no use to Google – it was a giant digital hot accidental potato to be blamed on incompetence, oversight, bad luck, miscommunication or disorganization but not anything blatantly illegal or flagrantly unethical. This was an accident, an accident without the stupid quotation marks everyone’s using. I say accident, the Australian communications minister says “the largest privacy breach in the history across western democracies.” Tomato tomato.

Google has been contrite, cooperative and transparent throughout all of this with everyone, authorities and civilians alike. Google fesses up upon discovery, certainly no financial gain, no criminal intent that anyone can convincingly try to articulate. They just wanted to take some pictures and map SSIDs. When you do that on such a tremendous scale, a little screw-up or two happens but for the greater good as Google Maps and wifi location improvements are wonderful things. Google has apologized its ass off, showing even the Toyota CEO how it’s done. If you’ve got a good understanding of what mapping SSIDs entails, existing software like libpcap, Wireshark, Kismet and the like, maybe you can see how easy it might have been with their developers racing to cook up a variant to forget the over-preservation of certain inflammatory data. Just drive through, put up with the Brits throwing stuff at you, snap pictures, geocache SSIDs and upload.

Google well before this happened has bent over backwards to accommodate everyone’s delicate sensibilities with, for example, removing entire cities upon request, blurring faces and license plates, heading requests from the military, removing or otherwise obfuscating abortion clinics and domestic violence shelters, giving all users the ability to flag anything for fairly prompt examination and possible removal, give governments a heads’ up, lower the cameras a meter – you name it, they’ve done it, and typically upon request or common sense, not because they googled and found laws against the practice in other countries and foreign cities – though they surely did that too.

Recorded data exclusively included unencrypted data. Were this intentional, Google could have easily cracked WEP encryption on the fly to get a lot more juicy data for their sinister plan; they didn’t. You’ve heard the legal arguments, trespassing comparisons and other poetry, about whether or not it’s legal to listen in, inadvertently or otherwise, on unencrypted wifi data in public places but here’s one from a slashdot reader for you web developers who likens people being vocally upset about being victimized by Google’s wifi receivers to “bitching that Google indexes your site because you didn’t setup a robot.txt file.”

Google has been dying to destroy, to really expunge, all of this data but they can’t, and this must drive them nuts, because they could be accused of destroying evidence. It could be argued – no, I’ll use the active voice here – I’m arguing that it is the loudmouth politicians and protesters perpetuating the threat of this data leaking.

I know I’m going out on a limb with this paragraph, but if anything, the net result of this fiasco is that the public, the public of countries with newspapers and / or Internet access and maybe some roads, has been educated a bit on the importance of securing their home networks. If you’ve ever gone wardriving yourself you’d see just how many people don’t encrypt and as a result expose themselves to sniffing but from the bad guys, not just Google. It’s even prompting countries like Germany, I believe, to make laws mandating that people encrypt their network. If you can slip into an ends justifying the means mindset, then you know that this is a good thing.

Google has been punished and dragged through more than enough mud. If you are levelheaded enough to acknowledge this as a relatively harmless innocent mistake but say they should get spanked harder to set an example, well, to you I say c’mon, no one would want to go through what they’ve gone through, and surely in addition to Google others have learned a lesson here (Skyhook, Microsoft). No need to get litigious and cash hungry or deny your less crazy citizen counterparts the ability to use this wonderful service that looks really cool on a phone with a compass and other sensors.

People, please just drop it and, if you must, instead just keep breaking their balls (and maybe Facebook’s) for privacy invasion they commit intentionally and out in the open with fine print spelled out clearly and in a normal-sized font. On that link they also offer all their older versions of the privacy policies, one example of transparency. Here’s Google outlining their improved Street View driving policies nice and succinctly. What the hell more do you want from them? Punitive damages? Cessation of Street View driving operations? Shutdown of the service itself? Further humiliation or burning of senior executives at the stake? More self-deprecation?

Can’t you just settle for an elected, not a leveraged, disclosure, emotionally moving and clearly sincere apologies, crystal clear transparency and ramping up of privacy policies? The fifteen minutes of fame rule, from what I’ve seen, often applies to business matters. Anyone remember the Oracle vs Google Java battle? I sure don’t and that was pretty serious, threatened Android entirely as well as the open source community, issues of impact on the line, not imaginary ones or something like that.

Damnit, let it go already, and while you’re your computer or phone check out Google Maps because they actually expanded it to Antarctica where they’ve got cute penguins whose panties don’t bunch up as easily as yours.

Doug Simmons

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