There’s a lot being written about Google’s collection of “private data” from WiFi networks using scanning equipment in its Street View cars. The Daily Beast says ”it’s not paranoia if Google is really snooping on you”, and that Google “collected private data from non-password protected Wi-Fi networks”; the Register informs us that “Google may have collected emails and other private information”; BoingBoing says that the search company ‘snooped’ “private data people sent over unencrypted wireless networks”; and on it goes.
Whatever you might think about Google, and whether or not you like the idea of the company holding data on you - let alone of its software as an automated arbiter of whether, for example, your face or car number-plate is correctly excised from the Street View maps - this réportage is disingenuous, and particularly disappointing because it’s coming from such generally solid sources. (I’m glad to note that Ars Technica’s coverage keeps it sensible.)
There’s been plenty of discussion recently of Facebook’s privacy policies, with luminaries like Danah Boyd writing lucidly about the issues there - which is only right - but it seems to be making for an atmosphere in which lazy journalists are playing on people’s reasonable concerns about their online privacy in order to make a big headline.
Of course, this is hardly the first time that that’s happened, and, equally, this isn’t the first instance in which Google’s approach to privacy has also been subject to scrutiny - and in some of those instances, found seriously wanting - but the way in which this particular episode is being presented serves merely to add sludge to already muddy waters, and these particular straits, treacherously complicated though they can seem, are important. The clue to the misrepresentation is in the terminology: “private data”, and “unencrypted”, “non-password protected” WiFi networks.
Obviously Google has a responsibility to ensure its software works properly and doesn’t compromise people. Obviously if it’s engaging in large-scale data collection it has a responsibility to ensure that such collection is done safely and respectfully. The reality of software engineering is that software is written by people, and people make mistakes, even in systems that are designed to look for mistakes made by people. (Obviously, it’s a shame for Google that they’ve opened themselves up through such a mistake to further criticisms about their privacy record, given recent events.)
This, however, is not the real issue. The real issue here is that technology journalists are writing stories implying that Google is secretly snooping on our private lives, on the basis that it’s been collecting information which people have been broadcasting, unencrypted, to the world at large.
This is new ground for most people, and answers to questions regarding whether Google - or indeed anyone with a WiFi card and some software - should be able to do this are not self-evident. It’s complex ground, too; the questions are not just related to technology but also ethics and, consequently, law. Articles such as those quoted above over-simplify, making unstated assumptions which aren’t apparent to many readers, and thus misrepresent this important material to exactly those people who most need to have it correctly represented.
The problem is that we’re diving head-first into a massively more complex information society, predicated on spiralling levels of technological complexity. This opens myriad issues in terms of privacy, data protection and, crucially, the comprehension of these issues by the people most affected by them. Like, if you give a shit about the security or privacy of your information, it’s down to you to take basic precautions like enabling authentication and encryption on your home network. (Let’s not even bother with the fact that the vast majority of these “private” emails make most of their transit in plain sight over the public Internet, encrypted home WiFi or not.) Clearly this makes the issues involved into big stories; technology writers know this, and take it upon themselves to inform their readerships about it. Which is as it should be.
The thing is, this is important, and the people writing about it have a responsibility to inform their readers in a level, even-handed way. If they focus instead on whatever makes the bigger story, because that sells more newspapers/magazines/ad impressions, then they do those readers as great a disservice as the companies about whom they monger their headline-grabbing scares.
Douglas Rushkoff talked compellingly at this year’s SXSW about his “Ten Commandments for a Digital Age”. The main thrust of his talk was that in this new information technology landscape, if we’re not to be completely manipulated by the biases of the technology involved, or that of the technologists who create it, we must either learn to manipulate those systems directly ourselves, or at the least we recognise that technology has biases, and is not neutral.
This clearly applies to previously existing media, as the technology journals are painfully demonstrating: the current wailing about Google’s data-gathering mechanisms seems a pretty clear example of how individual people need to learn to recognise those biases for themselves, because those who profess to inform them about the issues intrinsic to the technological advances are equally beholden to their own, pre-existing biases, amplified by scale and distribution in their new global context. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.