On the day that Google was fined $7 million for what may be the most far-reaching and despicable invasion of privacy in the Internet age, the company also announced that it was awarding nearly $15 million in bonuses to its former CEO and other key executives. The fine means nothing to a company whose net income is in the neighborhood of $32 million a day.
The violation was egregious and deserved more than a few moments in the corner. Google, while using cameras to catalog street-level images around the world, also collected private data left exposed by unencrypted wireless signals. It recorded passwords, emails and medical and financial information.
Google says the violations were committed by an unsupervised mid-level engineer without his bosses knowing and the company has expressed remorse over the program. But that is hardly an excuse, even if it is true. Given the obvious issues of privacy, it should have set up systems to prevent this kind of problem, and then quickly come clean about them instead of waiting for court action by 38 states – including New York – to force its hand.
We are already on the slippery slope. One of Google’s next products, Google Glass, is a minicomputer that nestles in a pair of eyeglasses and can record whatever is going on around it. The potential for invasion of privacy on a massive scale is plain.
That’s not to say anything can or should be done to prevent the marketing of this product. The technology genie is out of the tube and it’s not going back in. But it is past time for society to come to grips with the daily invasions of privacy that already occur, if on a smaller scale than the suctioning up of millions of pieces of personal data.
The likelihood seems to be that all of us will have to live with less privacy. When we don’t give it up voluntarily on social media sites, marketers track our online movements. It seems to be the new normal. But sometimes, a line needs to be drawn. Does the inevitability of Google Glass have to mean that it is no longer possible to have a private conversation?
That may be a question that the courts will eventually have to decide, but after the disgrace of the Google Streets project, it would be nice if Google did some reflecting on it beforehand.