Its been an interesting couple weeks for raising privacy awareness. As Facebook gets hammered by its users and the media on privacy concerns (see my earlier post), Google is finding itself in hotter water with German officials and potentially the US FTC with investigations over collecting private data.
I've been watching this story unfold for the last few weeks. German prosecutors are investigating Google's apparent 3 year practice of collecting unsecured WiFi data with its Street View cars. On Friday May 14th Google admitted and apologized on its blog for the "mistaken" collection of private network data. This was after they denied the allegations in an earlier blog post. In the May 14th post Google explains how they inadvertently left experimental WiFi network data collection code in the Street View car code and sent it on the road. An honest mistake, says Google, with no bad or nefarious intentions. Google also made sure to say that it is taking steps to cooperate with officials and remove any offended data. Good.
True this can happen with code, but I'm particularly concerned about the lack of adult supervision that would allow Google to end up in this position. Yes, it is the maverick frontier of Web X.0 and stuff like this happens. But, there are lots of technologist who could have told Google this could happen and helped to protect itself from something like this. They would have also checked the code before posting a denial, to make sure there wasn't any mistake to correct.
Thing is, Google has a lot to lose today, with its foray into enterprise and the fact that is starting to charge for business grade services. It's one thing when you offer your services for free and then muck around with privacy settings (like Facebook). It can really annoy users but hey, they aren't paying for consistency. Its another thing, however, when you're trying to break into the skittish business market, get them to change their thinking about the Web, and trust that you have robust respect and technology for data protection and privacy.
Personally, I'm glad to see all this kerfuffle about privacy. Social networks the size of Facebook and data hoarders like Google are good things but there are risks. As consumers become more educated about those risks the more pressure can be placed on technology providers to mitigate those risks. I remember when cars didn't have to have seat belts or children didn't need to ride in car seats. These are good things that consumers demanded. As more and more people get connected to the Internet, safety should be a leading concern for all Internet providers.