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Quick takes // By Ben FrankelGoogle’s assault on privacy: a reminder

Published 28 August 2017

On its best day, with every ounce of technology the U.S. government could muster, it could not know a fraction as much about any of us as Google does now” (Shelly Palmer, technology analyst).

This column was first published four-and-half years ago – on 14 March 2013 – two days after the attorney generals of thirty-eight states reached an agreement with Google concerning Google’s practice of spying on Wi-Fi users, and one year after Google, on 1 March 2012, launched its privacy-eroding policy of connecting, combining, and collating users’ information across all of Goggle’s products.

A year ago, on 1 March 2012, Goggle launched its privacy-eroding policy of connecting, combining, and collating users’ information across all of Goggle’s products. Thus, if you use Google to do your Web searches, Gmail for your e-mails, watch videos on YouTube, and consult Google Maps for directions — Google, as of last March, combines all this information about you so it has a detailed picture of who you are, what you like, what you do — and then sells this detailed profile to advertisers. As if this were not offensive enough, Google offers no opt-out option.

The next day, 2 March 2012, in our “Quote of the day,” we quoted technology analyst Shelly Palmer who said: “On its best day, with every ounce of technology the U.S. government could muster, it could not know a fraction as much about any of us as Google does now” (“Google’s new privacy policy,” HSNW, 2 March 2012).

We now learn that forcing consumers to share every aspect and nuance of their Internet practices with the company, and not allowing these consumers an opt-out option, was not enough for Google.

Yesterday, the attorney generals of thirty-eight states reached an agreement with Google concerning Google’s practice of spying on Wi-Fi users. The company sheepishly admitted that its Street View Vans collected 600GB of user data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks.

The agreement calls for the company to pay merely $7 million fine.

Robert X. Cringely, who has been following Google’s practices with growing alarm — and outrage— notes that Google admitted to its Wi-Fi spying only after saying many other things:

— April 2010: Google categorically denies surreptitiously collecting Wi-Fi data from unencrypted networks.

— Two weeks later: Google admits collecting the data, but says it was “a mistake.” The company also says that the data it collected could not be used to identify individual consumers.

— A few months later: Google admitted that the data it secretly collected included entire e-mail messages, passwords, and URLs – and that the company had stored all that data. The company explained it was all the work of a rogue engineer acting on his own.

— Two years later: an FCC report offers details on how this supposedly rogue engineer specifically designed the software stealthily to collect the personal data of unsuspected cinsumers — and told his supervisors about it at least twice. They did nothing.

Cringely concludes: “As corporate malfeasance goes, the Wi-Fi spy case far exceeds Microsoft’s $732 million failure to offer a choice of browser with Windows 7 or even Google’s $22.5 million browser trick, ignoring the privacy settings of Safari users in order to better serve them ads.”

In 1966, Grant McConnell published one of the more important scholarly works on American history and politics: Private Power and American Democracy. The volume synthesized the conclusions of his research on agriculture, labor, steel, and conservation, and presented a theoretical and historical challenge to the prevailing view, represented, for example, by thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville. These thinkers contended that the main threat to American democracy came from concentrated power in the hands of the government, and argued for the legitimating – and democratizing — role of decentralized private associations in the American system.

McConnell demonstrated, however, that there is a tendency in the American political system for interest groups and private associations to turn public power to the service of private ends, and noted that concentration of power in private hands can be as deleterious to democracy and individual rights as concentrated power in the hands of the government.

Google is not turning public power to the service of private ends, but it does offer a disturbing example of the risks that the concentration of unfettered power in private hands can pose to individual rights and freedoms.

McConnell died in 1993. Would that he were still here to add another chapter or two to his classic work. He would not be lacking for new material to support his insightful thesis.

Ben Frankel is the editor of Homeland Security News Wire