Secrets spilled across the computer screen. After months of negotiation, Johannes Caspar, a German data protection official, forced Google to show him exactly what its Street View cars had been collecting from potentially millions of his fellow citizens. Snippets of e-mails, photographs, passwords, chat messages, postings on websites and social networks – all sorts of private Internet communication – were casually scooped up as the specially-equipped cars photographed the world’s streets. “It was one of the biggest violations of data protection laws that we had ever seen,” Caspar recently recalled about that long-sought viewing in late 2010. “We were very angry.” Google might be one of the coolest and smartest companies of this or any era, but it also upsets a lot of people – competitors who argue it wields its tremendous weight unfairly, officials like Caspar who says it ignores local laws, privacy advocates who think it takes too much from its users. Just this week, European anti-trust regulators gave the company an ultimatum to change its search business or face legal consequences. American regulators may not be far behind. The high-stakes anti-trust assault, which will play out this summer behind closed doors in Brussels, might be the beginning of a tough time for Google.
But never count Google out. It is superb at getting out of trouble. Just ask Caspar or any of his counterparts around the world who tried to hold Google accountable for what one of them, the Australian communication minister Stephen Conroy, called “probably the single greatest breach in the history of privacy”. The secret Street View data collection led to inquiries in at least a dozen countries, including four in the US alone. But Google is yet to give an explanation of why the data was collected and who at the company knew about it. No regulator in the US has ever seen the information that Google’s cars gathered from the citizens. The tale of how Google escaped a full accounting for Street View illustrates not only how technology companies have outstripped the regulators, but also their complicated relationship with their adoring customers. Companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple supply new ways of communication, learning, entertainment and high-tech wizardry for the masses. They have custody of the raw material of hundreds of millions of lives – the intimate e-mails, the revealing photographs, searches for help or love or escape. People willingly, at times eagerly, surrender this information. But there is a price: the loss of control, or even knowledge, of where that personal information is going and how it is being reshaped into an online identity that may resemble the real you or may not. Privacy laws and wiretapping statutes are of little guidance, because they have not kept pace with the lightning speed of technological progress.
Source: The Economic Times