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This week a federal appeals court ruled that a lawsuit against Google may move forward. The allegations of illegal wiretapping stem from Google’s “Street View” initiative, which began as an attempt to map every part of the world past which Google could send a camera. The Street View vehicles allegedly collected all kinds of material through open WiFi connections, such as e-mail, passwords and other personal information. The key to this data collection was that it occurred through unencrypted networks. If you have a wireless modem or any other wireless hotspot or network in your home that is not secured, anyone can conceivably use that connection to snoop through your computer and look at your personal data.
To simplify Google’s argument somewhat, the search giant has argued that since any idiot could snoop through your open WiFi connection if you don’t protect it, the information collected was “publicly available” and thus not a violation of wiretapping statutes. The appeals court in San Francisco Tuesday did not accept this argument, so the lawsuit will proceed. This suit is the compilation of multiple lawsuits brought by United States citizens after the wiretapping was exposed abroad.
The Street View program has been controversial since its introduction. For every citizen who enjoys being able to look online for an address and spot visual landmarks, there is another who is using the service to stalk someone. For every Google user who finds the mapping service convenient, there is another who finds it creepy. Deep down, we’re all more or less OK with the other guy’s house being photographed from the sidewalk or the street, but we don’t want our own homes to appear on the service. Then, too, there is the immediacy of the Street View images. In some cases, homeowners can see themselves in or outside their homes. They can see their cars parked in their driveways. And sometimes they do crazy things that are recorded for all time, even performing them deliberately in an effort to leave a homemade “Easter egg” (a hidden item that is usually amusing when found) in the Google maps system.
Google’s cameras have recorded car accidents, a couple having sex on the hood of a BMW in rural Australia and probably about a million people wearing rubber horse masks (now a running Internet gag). These aren’t even the strangest images. In one, a pair of men dressed as samurai are about to duel with padded baseball bats. In another, a seemingly unattended baby crawls on the marble outside a Gucci store, heading for the street. In still another, a naked man climbs out of the trunk of a convertible while a dog lies sleeping or dead on his brick drive. There are prostitutes plying their trade. There are fat men who ought to be wearing shirts who are not. And there seems to be no end to the pictures of people waiting for their dogs to do their business.
It isn’t all fun and games. Street View vehicles have been attacked in the Channel Island of Guernsey, where cars had their tires slashed and their cables cut, and in England, where a mob (concerned that mapping of their neighborhood would make it easier pickings for burglaries) surrounded the car and turned it back. In Austria, a 70-year-old man went after a Street View car with a pickaxe. In Israel, the question of whether Street View mapping could be used to facilitate terrorist bombings was raised.
Through it all, Google has remained stolidly insistent on its various corporate initiatives to map, chronicle, catalog and render searchable the whole of the world. Yet the Street View lawsuit and public awareness of the program is really old news by now. We’ve become, if not accustomed to, at least tolerant of the existence of this service. Many of us use it. Still others refuse on principle. Google, meanwhile, is undeterred by the controversies around its programs. It is even now actively advocating for the right to continue scanning the content sent and received by users of Gmail.
In California, Google is being sued in a class action lawsuit over its email service. While no human being is actively reading the content of your emails (or so Google argues), Google’s automated search technology is checking every word of your messages for keywords that enable it to better target ads to you. This is the same reason social media sites like Facebook regularly acquire personal information about you. It isn’t a nefarious plot to enable government snooping (although Google itself wants the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to let it publicly disclose more about the national security requests it gets from your government – no minor thing in light of the recently aired and quickly forgotten scandal about NSA snooping into telephone calls and text messages). The reason these faceless Internet entities want to know more about you is so they can more carefully ask you to spend money on things you’ll actually want to buy. It’s that simple.
So where does this leave the citizen concerned about his or her online privacy? Your emails are being scanned. Your WiFi connection is being snooped. Your telephone and text messages are being sifted through and checked for patterns. Everything you do on your computer and smartphone is conceivably subject to invasive government or commercial intrusion. So what do you do?
The solution is as simple as it is difficult. Commit to carrying out all sensitive conversations and interactions in person. Don’t send personal details in email if you cannot imagine those details becoming public knowledge. Don’t say anything in electronic media you aren’t prepared to stand behind. And rediscover, while you’re at all this, the fine art of going to see people and talking to them about things, rather than trusting an army of faceless technicians and soulless computers to keep your private things private.
If you want to keep a secret, don’t tell anyone. Everything else is subject to intrusion from any of countless sources.