Germany "Horrified" That Google's Collecting Publicly-Available Data
from the your-new-world-order-has-a-pretty-rainbow-logo dept
German authorities launched a new fit of privacy hysteria last week after discovering that Google's Street View cars are not only taking photographs -- they're recording the publicly-available router MAC addresses and SSIDs seen as the cars travel past Wi-Fi hotspots. UK and European politicians had already been up in arms about Americans wandering the streets taking pictures of citizens and completely non-secretive government buildings, and now Germany's data protection chief is supposedly "horrified" by the discovery that Google is also collecting public wireless hotspot data. Of course a number of companies and individuals (like Skyhook Wireless and war drivers) have been doing this exact thing for years, but because it's Google -- somehow hysteria reigns.
Neither German authorities or those covering the story seem able to say how precisely an aggregate collection of public data will be used for nefarious purposes. The assumption simply is that Google has somehow figured out a way. The Register for instance informs readers that Google's "uniquely cavalier approach to privacy" and "potential ability to cross reference the information raises additional concerns." Yet the report seems unable to tell readers what those concerns are, instead just assuming that Google must be doing something mischievous, and quoting CEO Eric Schmidt as saying users "shouldn't worry about privacy unless they have something to hide." Of course what Schmidt actually said in that interview with CNBC was somewhat less sinister:
"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines like Google do retain the information for some time, and we are all subject to the Patriot Act, and it is possible that that information may be made available to the authorities."
Though Schmidt does veer awfully close to the surveillance state meme of "if you don't have anything to hide you've got nothing to worry about," in context he's simply saying the obvious: that if you want information kept private -- don't share it -- given public data these days is collected and by proxy easily accessible to law enforcement. With the outcries over Street View taking photographs of your front door, there's nothing being collected that users can't already see should they walk by. With Google's collection of Wi-Fi data, there's again nothing being collected that isn't publicly available. MAC addresses (and in this case we're just talking about hotspot MAC addresses) are changeable, and users can hide their SSID if they don't want the world to see it.
That said, how the aggregate data is used by such a large corporation is very important, and people should push Google to be as transparent as possible -- but there's a difference between asking reasonable questions about Google's data collection practices and just assuming the worst possible scenario. Google isn't publishing this data -- and two different blog posts explain how much data they're collecting, why it's being collected, and how it's being used largely to aid in GPS triangulation and local search. Though clearly from there they'll feed this data into the heads up displays of Google shock troops clad in black gunmetal body armor -- who can then carry out Google's master plan of taking over the planet using your Linksys details.