Spiraling Privacy Scandals Becoming Googlegate?

May 26, 2010

Google’s long-time cavalier approach to privacy and security are catching up to the company as its latest wardriving privacy scandal, appears to be spiraling out of the control of Google’s legendary PR machine.

First, the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent Google a tough investigative letter on its wanton wardriving of the U.S. The most problematic question for Google got to the root of Google’s privacy scandals: “What is Google’s process to ensure that data collection associated with new products and services offered by the company is adequately controlled?” This line of inquiry makes it clear this is not just a probe of this privacy incident, but of Google’s systemic weaknesses in internal/management controls concerning privacy.

  • (The step-up of the Committee’s investigation of Google, also could be seen as an implicit vote of little confidence in the Federal Trade Commission’s interest in enforcing the law against politically-connected Google, given that the FTC has largely ignored repeated serious privacy complaints (here, here, & here) against Google, and given that the FTC just approved a Google-AdMob transaction despite concluding the acquisition “raised serious antitrust issues” and eliminated “head-to-head competition” between “the two leading mobile advertising networks.“)

Second, privacy watchdog EPIC sent a letter to the FCC this week urging the FCC to launch an investigation into Google’s wanton wardriving as a secret systematic violation of American wiretap laws.

  • (This issue could be a litmus test of whether this FCC will seriously investigate real violations of law that actually have harmed Americans by FCC policy-ally Google, or whether they will only investigate and act on potential problems facing Google.)

Third, investigations of Google’s wanton wardriving continue to cascade internationally, see: Germany (criminal), Canada, France, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, etc.

Fourth, a second consumer class action law suit has been filed in the U.S. against Google in Massachusetts, adding to the one from consumers in Oregon and Washington.

Fifth, Consumer Watchdog has written a letter urging state Attorneys General to investigate the “WiSpy” scandal.

This issue is obviously spiraling out of the control of Google’s normal teflon PR operation.

What makes this a serious, and a potential “Googlegate” scandal, is that so many serious people are asking serious questions about what did people know and when did they know it. As any Washington observer knows, people get in more trouble for the cover-up than for the original infraction. People intutitively have found Google’s “simple mistake” defense patently unbelievable given that Google professes to be the best finder and organizer of information in the world, and given that supposedly no one other than the original code writer was aware of this wardriving capability that occurred in over 30 countries over a period of three years. Everyone knows that someone at Google knew something, and that fact is being whitewashed or covered-up. Why? How high did the discussion of how to publicly handle this go? It probably will take a court subpoena or a civil investigative demand from the Government to get to the bottom of this spiraling scandal.

In sum, the reason Google is stonewalling and trying to change the subject is that they know they collect a whole lot more private information on Americans and others than they have ever disclosed. Google is terrified that investigators will look beyond StreetView and discover the mind-bogglingly detailed digital dossiers Google has assembled on Internet users with out their meaningful permission or authorization. See my one-pager on “What Private Information Google collects” to better understand why Google wants to shut down any in-depth probe into Google’s privacy practices.

Lastly, if Google is true to its past PR form, Google could start demonizing Governments for investigating Google’s privacy breach, implying that Government’s can’t be trusted with the private information Google illegally collected.

  • Don’t be surprised if Google tries to re-spin this problem like it did against China, implying that Google is the only “real” friend of “Internet freedom” and Internet users… and only Google is unafraid to stand up to big bad Governments who want to get access to consumers private information in any Google investigation.
  • Also don’t be surprised if Google reminds everyone ad nauseum that it was the only company that stood up to the DOJ when it tried to subpoena private information in a child pornography FBI investigation — and that private information is safer in the hands of Google than in Governments.
  • Moreover, it will be interesting to see if Google shifts its PR effort to claiming to be the victim of Government intrusion, when they were the ones that effectively wiretapped and illegally recorded Internet traffic from hundreds of millions of Internet users in over 30 countries.
  • I hope I am wrong, but if Google reverts to its regular PR pattern — expect them to politically demonize their investigators/accusers and plead sainthood to the press/public.

 

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