Between 2008 and 2010, Google collected bits of personal data -- emails, websites visited and other sensitive material -- from unsecured WiFi networks around the world. All its employees needed to gather this were commercially available antennas and some open-source software.
The company says that it didn't mean to collect people's sensitive information. It was assembling imagery and location data for its innovative Street View feature, which allows users to stand, virtually, on practically any street corner after just a few mouse clicks. It relied on unencrypted WiFi signals to help match images with locations. But in the process, its roaming information-gatherers dug into unsecured data streams, gathering far more than they needed for Street View.
This month, Google settled with attorneys general from 38 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, who were jointly investigating the company. It committed to paying $7 million, destroying as soon as possible the personal information it took and implementing a 10-year privacy program. More important than these results, though, is the lingering fact that Google -- apparently without meaning to -- easily accessed all sorts of information that WiFi users were broadcasting. Technology creates new possibilities -- and new vulnerabilities. Users need to appreciate both.
Law enforcement can do only so much to keep up, even if the law were heavily weighted toward privacy protection. It's relatively easy to investigate a big company that has a lot of cars rolling around collecting data. It's much harder for the authorities to stop a lone antenna-bearing snooper in a van outside your house. The best defence is locking your home WiFi network.
There is already plenty of hand-wringing about what people put on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Teens share party photos they might find embarrassing -- even professionally damaging -- years later, if they forget to take them down. College students comment on the severity of their hangovers. Politicians accidentally press the wrong button on Twitter and inappropriate images of themselves zoom around the Internet -- in their case, indelibly. But it's not some mysterious phenomenon when material posted in a public forum becomes subject to public scrutiny. There is only so much privacy any reasonable person can expect there.
Critics are pre-emptively raising similar concerns about Google Glass, a somewhat conspicuous new eyepiece that allows users to take photos, record sounds and take video, perhaps without raising quite the attention that a cellphone camera would. The worry could well be overblown, for now. When the same gadget is small enough to fit onto a contact lens, users will have to get used to more of what they do in public being on the (electronic) record.
Google's data-gathering provides a slightly different lesson: The most heralded challenges to personal privacy are not the only ones users should care about. The advance of technology also results in tools that threaten privacy in less obvious ways, to which most users might not pay nearly as much -- or any -- attention.