Has Google Crossed The Creepy Line: Not A Halloween Spoof!

Google’s desire to remain a respectable organisation that honours the privacy of its customers and subscribers took a bit of a battering earlier this week. The UK’s influential Daily Telegraph newspaper on Tuesday carried a heavyweight article that asked Has Google Crossed The Creepy Line?

The Creepy Line reference was a reference to a comment by Google CEO Eric Schmidt who said it was the Big G’s aim to “to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” Recent concerns in Europe indicate that the company may have either deliberately crossed the line or at least inadvertently tripped over it.

The main bone of contention is that while its Google Street View cars where driving around the country mapping the road network they were also collecting passwords, URLs etc from unprotected domestic Wi Fi networks. Now it could be argued that anyone that leaves their wireless connection unprotected deserves everything they get, but put that aside the Telegraph Article raises some valid and genuine concerns.

Google apologised and a spokesman said that the company had not collected the data intentionally. “We are mortified by what happened,” said Alan Eustace, Google’s vice-president of engineering and research. Now is that mortified by the fact they collected the data nor mortified they got caught?

What must concern Google is that in the UK the case is to be reopened and reinvestigated by the UK’s Information Commissioner. Having been investigated by the IC’s team – and got a clear bill of health I hasten to add – I can confirm that these guys take the term “shit kicking” to a new level and are not to be messed with. Google has been in protracted negotiations with the EU about the length of time that it retains Street View photographs.

EU Privacy Complaint

Some people are not prepared to wait for any promises. Last year, the people of Broughton, in Buckinghamshire, formed a human barrier to stop Google’s Street View car from entering their village. Furthermore, in April, privacy officials from 10 countries, including Britain, Germany, France and Canada, wrote to Google to complain about its approach to privacy. They cited Google Buzz and Street View as being particular areas of concern.

Daily Telegraph journalist Shane Richmond is quick to draw a parallel between data collected by Google and also by Facebook. “The idea of privacy in decline fits in very well with the aims of Zuckerberg and Schmidt, who want to sell advertising. In return, we get some great services and we don’t have to pay for them. At the most simple level, anyone who objects to Google’s privacy policies can simply stop using its services. The tension comes from where people draw the line in the trade-off.

“Making matters more complicated is the fact that we can now compromise each other’s privacy. If I post a photo to Facebook showing me and 50 friends at my wedding, am I really going to take the time to ask every single one whether he or she minds having their image online? And if one person objects, should their veto prevent me sharing the picture with the others?”

Social Norms

He continues: “The internet is too new for social norms to have developed and the pace of change is so rapid that it can be hard for even the tech-savvy to keep up. One of the criticisms of Google made after the Buzz fiasco was that its staff inhabit a different world from its customers. To Google engineers, being connected, sharing everything and exchanging data for services are the norm. Not so for the average web user.

“A recent survey found that 79 per cent of Americans want to keep the files and documents on their personal computer private. Almost half of those surveyed said they would be embarrassed about friends or family seeing certain files on their computer or smartphone. If that survey is repeated in 10 years, perhaps the result will be different. Perhaps by then even the “creepy line” will have moved a little.”

Now I am fairly sure that at this moment in time my data is safe but what happens in 20,30 years time when new people are at the top of the Big G? What happens if they hold religious or political views that hold a difference definition of the “evil” that Google must not do?

I am not a Google knocker, I use its products daily, but these issues must be addressed if the adoption of cloud computing is to continue to the benefit of millions and must not be held back by privacy fears.

Kevin Tea is a journalist and marketing communications professional who has worked for some of the leading blue chip companies in the UK and Europe. In the 1990s he became interested in how emerging Internet-based technologies could change the way that people worked and became an administrator on the Telework Europa Forum on CompuServe. With other colleagues he took part in a four year European Commission sponsored project to look at the way that the Internet could benefit remote communities. His blog is a resource for SMEs who want to use cloud computing and Web 2.0 technologies.