What is it about our love affair with Google that we let them take wholesale liberties with our privacy, and sit back and watch what might be one of the largest data breaches in history go by without so much as a whimper?

We're in your internets ... a Google Street View car / File

After some prodding, Google recently admitted to European Privacy Commissioners that they had “mistakenly” collected the contents of communications between some computer users, as part of their “Street View” activities.  Mistakenly.  All around the world. For four years.

It goes something like this: specially equipped “Street View” vehicles criss-cross entire nations, taking photographs of our houses and streets, geo-tagging the location with both a GPS and also by “sniffing” for WI FI connections in the area.  That way, when a person uses a Google product to locate themselves (like Google Maps), and there are WI FI networks detected nearby, Google can triangulate the device and give you an approximate location.  Pretty cool, and nothing really too scary about that, even though there were privacy concerns raised at the time.  We trusted Google.

But that isn’t all Google did.  They also copied the unencrypted communications of the users of those WI FI services.  Things like emails.  Now that’s not cool.

In fact, according to the Australian Privacy Commissioner, Karen Curtis, “we regard such collection as a likely breach of the Privacy Act”.

Not the first time Google has been pulled on for flying a little too close to the sun and taking liberties with our privacy.

In February this year Google’s new “Buzz” product was universally condemned because it “auto-followed” (and therefore exposed) the details of the people users most emailed and chatted with.  Not something everyone wants aired in public.

But Google said “sorry” in their blog (their main way of communicating mea culpa moments), so we forgave them.  It is almost like they were teflon-coated.

We trusted Google.

This time Google has again said “sorry” in their blog, and that they will destroy the data they claim they accidentally collected.  No harm done.

But wait, this time it’s different: there are laws against this type of activity. 

Laws like the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act.  Specifically section 7 which states “a person shall not intercept a communication passing over a telecommunications system”, with Section 6 defining “interception” as “recording by any means a communication in its passage over a telecommunications system without the knowledge of the person making the communication”.

So there are criminal (and civil) matters Google may need to address, on top of the Privacy Act concerns expressed by Curtis.

This is the same Google who has been so vocally smacking the Federal government around for what it sees is a great infringement of our privacy: Senator Conroy’s mooted mandatory internet filter.  After all, who can trust a government?

Seems to me like a teflon-coated pot calling a kettle black.

Rather than tackling this issue via its blog, perhaps its time for some good old fashioned offline scrutiny: with Google answering back to government investigators, maybe ending up in a court setting.

Much as I for one appreciate Google’s offer to destroy the evidence of their activities, I’d prefer it to be in the hands of the government.

Thank goodness for those Europeans being on the ball, the rest of us just smiled and waved at those cute Google vehicles.

Most commented


Show oldest | newest first

    • DG says:

      08:51am | 20/05/10

      there is something fundimentally flawd in driving around every street, taking pictures of every house building or whatever and
      A- not telling people about it
      B- not explaining why you are doing it
      C- thats its free….
      D- and then scrapping data lines to see what people are using the net for

      lets open EVERY letter thats posted, look to where it comes from and to whom it goes too- and know what its all about- without telling people why!!

      invasion of privacy must stop

    • DG (The returned one) says:

      10:36am | 20/05/10

      I have no problem with people traveling around taking photos of everything they can see and obtaining financial benefit from that information - certainly do not think that they should have to justify it to anyone.

      Then again - I have high fences around my back yard, I keep the front blinds closed and padlock my mailbox. Any other information (such as the brand of the car in my driveway, the product wrappers that may be visible through the car windows, the flowers I have growing in the garden and so forth are, as far as I am concerned, in the public domain.

    • Gavin Hodge says:

      11:57am | 20/05/10

      Exactly right DG. The same way that any old Joe Blow can walk down a street and observe these things. Public view is public view. Obviously anything behind your fence and blinds is not public view. Neither is tapping into your telecommunications.

    • Ned says:

      09:56am | 20/05/10

      We ignore this kind of behaviour because we’ve never been exposed to its worst excesses like so many European countries have. It’s also a little more subtle than your typical Stasi methods of collecting information, so we just don’t notice. I’m not one of those paranoid conspiracy thoerists, but I think we’d all be surpised at just how much personal information is held by not just governments, but private organisations as well. Perhaps we shoud start thinking about it a little more.

    • KAH says:

      10:05am | 20/05/10

      you know the data collection could have been prevented if people used the privacy settings on their wifi. can’t blame google for other’s stupidity

    • Leon says:

      11:32am | 20/05/10

      Ah, the voice of reason.  I knew something was missing in this here debate?

    • TC says:

      04:42pm | 20/05/10

      Are you someone who sees an unlocked bike outside a house and assumes it’s yours because it wasnt locked?

      Theft is theft whether there are ‘privacy settings’ or not.

      Do Know Evil

    • Dr. W says:

      10:42am | 20/05/10

      Google do not need to answer back to the government. What needs to be done is that at least EU starts aggressively investigating Google and starting making them accountable for every thing they have done wrong. Hopefully when EU has yet again- just look at the fines they gave Microsoft -taking a big company to trial other countries will dare to do the same.

      It is scary to see how big Google has become, because now if they do something wrong they can just publicly say sorry and it was a mistake on their part; then magically everything is okay again.

      I am impressed with what Japan did when they told Google that their Street View pictures were too invasive. So now Google is taking new Street View pictures because Japan had the balls to say no.

      I understand that some find Street View very helpful, but seriously, people found their way to Australia first by exploring and later by using a map and navigation. Have we become that stupid that we can not find our way without knowing how a place looks like?

      I stopped using Google products over a year ago as I do not trust Google anymore. A company that publically states that privacy doesn not exist anymore is not a company I am able to trust. Would you let a surgeon operate on you if he/she said that hygiene is overrated?

      We have become too complacent. I just remember back in late ‘80s when I was a kid and this invasion of privacy we have now would be a total outrage.

    • Rick says:

      10:56am | 20/05/10

      Ohhh Noooo!!! they will find who I really am!!!

      Perhaps this will lead to people to be a bit more careful with their real identities, stop playing with fake ID’s (cause you’ll get caught anyway) and stop doing online what you wouldn’t be doing if you were being watched.

      Good article Alastair, but sounds like you just wanted to shove the ‘kettle and pot’ phrase somehow and no matter what. It ended up being totally unrelated to anything… it’s more out of place than a fart in a flower shop.

    • Lee says:

      12:15pm | 20/05/10

      Rick, are you sure you weren’t looking for a slot for ‘flower shop’ line? smile

      The implied hypocrisy is that Google - a company who’s motto ‘Don’t be evil’ underlines their stance against civil liberty infringements such as internet censorship - is now involved in amazingly far-reaching breaches against other liberties.
      As for other comments suggesting the outcome of google’s actions are the fault of the victim’s - where is the logic in that? Balancing civil liberties such as privacy boils down to reasonable expections and social norms.  While I can’t really expect to leave my front door unlocked 24hrs and not have my house burgled, I’d argue I should safely expect to run a home network, unsecured, and not have my communications snaffled up by a passing prius belonging to a global multi-national.

      Lets hope this issue is followed up. It’s important stuff.

    • paulm says:

      12:37pm | 20/05/10

      Google are hyporcits.  They were more than happy to meet the Chinese Communist Party’s requirements for allowing them to setup their internet search engine within China, which basically involved redirecting searches on Tibet, the Uygars, Tienamaen Square Massacre, and other political topics [excuse spelling] to CCP sites.  ie online censorship.  Because there’s good money to be made in China and ethics then come second in this instance.  And then they get on their high horse about the Government internet filter?  And now, oh no, those same evil Chinese have actually hacked Googl’s’ gmail service, spying on Chinese political activists who use this service.  So Google threaten’s to pull out of China, because its all so wrong.  Er, ok, but it wasn’t wrong to do what you did in the first place??  Again, the teflon Google kettle calling the pot black.  There have also been documentaries showing how the paid links that come up on Google searches are a big source of revenue for them, and they have no problems with those paid ad’s are for hard core porn, bittorrent sites and so on.  So you seem under that glossy squeaky clean image they are simply another hardcore capitalist American company that will always put profit first and everything else second.  Sure, its handy to talk about ethics, its good for business, but only when it is good for business.Just like Facebook.  Oh, I’ve looked at my house on Google view.  If I was a house burglar it would provide an excellent resource for planning a break in, figuring out an escape routes with google earth too, and so on.  All without having to even walk past in the real world first.  If I was a terrorist, even better.  Again, there are plenty of ways to abuse this information and I disagree that it should be so readily collected and made public without my permission.

    • Chase says:

      04:19pm | 20/05/10

      Nothing wrong with a bit of Porn paulm. Nothing wrong with it at all.

    • neil says:

      12:48pm | 20/05/10

      If you have privacy concerns it’s the government you should be worried about.

      Anyone can walk into a council office and access the electural roll and if they have your name they can get your address no questions asked. We are told that census information is only used by the ABS and is not shared with other govt departments, however I once changed address but had not changed my electural roll details, a few weeks after I had filled in the census forms I recieved a letter advising me my details had been changed.

      In 2000 I like many people registered a company for GST but never used it, 12 months later I recieved a text message on an unlisted mobile phone advising that it was being monitored by the Federal Police, a few hours later I recieved a call from the ATO asking if I still required the GST registration.

      Don’t worry about Google, worry about big brother.

    • Ben says:

      02:29pm | 20/05/10

      Im going to have to disagree with most posters here simply because most don’t know what they are talking about.
      Information was only gathered from wireless networks that where not password protected. It takes about 15 seconds to put a password on a network and protect your privacy.
      If its to complicated to do then your network should be set up by a professional. If I build my own house and made one wall entirely of glass, then complained that people where breaching my privacy by looking in from the street, I would be branded an idiot. Technology is no different. Educate yourself and protect your own privacy.

    • Stephen Wilson says:

      03:27pm | 20/05/10

      Ben, on the contrary, most of the critics of Google’s wifi collection do know what they’re talking about.  It is the purely technological (and unforgiving) viewpoint that people with insecure networks have no grounds to complain, that exhibits a lack of understanding. 

      The likely breach of Google’s has to do with Information Privacy Law.  Most such law around the world basically prohibits the collection by corporations and agencies of personal information unless there is a good need to collect it, or if the invidiuals concerned have consented.  “Personal Information” is any information about an individual where their identity is apparent or may be readily determined.  Information Privacy Law also prohibits personal information collected for one puroose from being put to some other unrelated purpose, without consent.

      Please understand this.  Under information privacy law, it doesn’t matter that a data source hasn’t been properly secured to your liking, nor that information is apparently “public” by virtue of appearing unencrypted in a wireless transmission.  Corporations are not allowed to collect personally identifiable information without a good reason, or without consent.

      There has been some worthy debate about whether core wifi data like SSIDs and MACs is worthy of privacy protection, but that fine point was rightly swamped when Google admitted they had actually collected much much more, which we presume did include identifying details.

    • Chase says:

      04:11pm | 20/05/10

      Only stupid people let their wireless go unprotected. Even if it’s only WEP security, use it. You’re fooling yourself if you think you can get away with not using wireless security.

    • Dr McKay says:

      05:08pm | 20/05/10

      Any network that is not encrypted, or at least protected buy a password IS in the public domain. 
      You don’t walk around naked, then expect people not to look do you?

      Though as an aside, is it still breaking and entering if the door is open?

    • marley says:

      07:53pm | 20/05/10

      Ah, sorry, but if I leave my car parked in the street and unlocked, and someone steals it, I may be an idiot but he’s a thief.  And he can be, and should be, charged.  My carelessness is no excuse for his theft.

    • Lee says:

      09:54pm | 20/05/10

      No, it’s trespass - and it’s still theft if you take what is inside!

    • ForeShadow says:

      08:06pm | 20/05/10

      If you don’t want people knowing your SSID, then stop broadcasting it across your fence and out on to the road.

    • davido says:

      09:29pm | 21/05/10

      And how about they return some of the advertising revenue and taxes they have ripped out of the Australian Economy?

    • Harquebus says:

      11:31am | 22/05/10

      What really annoyed me was, Google went and photographed our front yards and didn’t tell until after the fact. Google are the biggest rogues on the planet.


Facebook Recommendations

Read all about it

Punch live

Up to the minute Twitter chatter

Recent posts

The latest and greatest

The Punch is moving house

The Punch is moving house

Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…

Will Pope Francis have the vision to tackle this?

Will Pope Francis have the vision to tackle this?

I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…

Advocating risk management is not “victim blaming”

Advocating risk management is not “victim blaming”

In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…

Nosebleed Section

choice ringside rantings

From: Hasbro, go straight to gaol, do not pass go

Tim says:

They should update other things in the game too. Instead of a get out of jail free card, they should have a Dodgy Lawyer card that not only gets you out of jail straight away but also gives you a fat payout in compensation for daring to arrest you in the first place. Instead of getting a hotel when you… [read more]

From: A guide to summer festivals especially if you wouldn’t go

Kel says:

If you want a festival for older people or for families alike, get amongst the respectable punters at Bluesfest. A truly amazing festival experience to be had of ALL AGES. And all the young "festivalgoers" usually write themselves off on the first night, only to never hear from them again the rest of… [read more]

Gentle jabs to the ribs

Superman needs saving

Superman needs saving

Can somebody please save Superman? He seems to be going through a bit of a crisis. Eighteen months ago,… Read more



Read all about it

Sign up to the free News.com.au newsletter