May 22, 2018
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Personal data for the taking

Between 2008 and 2010, Google collected bits of personal data — emails, Web sites visited and other sensitive material — from unsecured Wi-Fi networks around the world.

The company says that it didn’t mean to collect people’s sensitive information. It was assembling imagery and location data for its innovative Street View feature. It relied on unencrypted Wi-Fi signals to help match images with locations. But, in the process, its roaming information-gatherers dug into unsecured data streams, gathering far more than they needed for Street View.

This month, Google settled with attorneys general from 38 states and the District of Columbia, who were jointly investigating the company. It committed to paying $7 million.

It’s relatively easy to investigate a big company that has a lot of cars rolling around collecting data. It’s much harder for the authorities to stop a lone antenna-bearing snooper in a van outside your house.

There is already plenty of hand-wringing about what people put on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. But it’s not some mysterious phenomenon when material posted in a public forum becomes subject to public scrutiny. There is only so much privacy any reasonable person — or unreasoning teen — can expect there.

Critics are preemptively raising similar concerns about Google Glass, a somewhat conspicuous new eyepiece that allows users to take photos, record sounds and take video, perhaps without raising quite the attention that a cellphone camera would. When the same gadget is small enough to fit onto a contact lens, Americans will have to get used to more of what they do in public being on the (electronic) record.

Google’s data-gathering provides a slightly different lesson: The most heralded challenges to personal privacy are not the only ones Americans should care about. The advance of technology also results in tools that threaten privacy in less obvious ways, to which most Americans might not pay nearly as much — or any — attention.

The Washington Post (March 28)

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