Following the ruling that Google was liable for damages for secretly intercepting and gathering public data from open Wi-Fi routers during its Street View project has literally opened a modern day Pandora box with numerous questions still remaining unanswered. FCC censured Google for eavesdropping on millions of unknowing people as the Street View cars drove past communities, whereas, Google claims that collection of Internet communication data including emails was regrettable but not illegal.
As part of Google’s Street View project, the surveillance cars were not only collecting photographs of every street but also information on local wireless networks with an aim of enhancing location-based searches. According to the engineer in charge of the project, the software tasked with data gathering was applied beyond the project scope as it also collected unencrypted data sent via PCs. To sum up, some of the legal and ethical questions that arose out of this case include the following;
- What is the definition of unencrypted information?
- Disclosure of key information.
- To what extent are Internet firms authorized to collect information?
- Who is protecting Internet users from global Internet firms?
- Are customers increased Internet privacy concerns limiting providers’ capability of developing next generation services?
Based on the Communications Act, Wi-Fi encryption technology was not defined because the technology was nonexistent during time the law was enacted. On the other hand the Wiretap Act doesn’t explicitly declare that it is ‘unlawful’ to intercept unencrypted communication. This leaves the legal definition of unencrypted communication a bit grey.
From the time the allegations emerged, Google remained tight lipped and has ignored calls from authorities to disclose the nature and amount of information they collected during the Street View project data. This raises the question of the capacity of regulators like FCC to protect consumers if they don’t have the power to obtain classified information.
As presented in this case, ‘innocent’ and unauthorized decisions by project managers and software developers to collect public data can be very costly. This is especially in light of current trends where consumers are more vigilant regarding how IT service providers protect the information they collect.
From the proceedings of the case, country specific agencies have the prerogative to protect Internet users from global Internet firms like Google. This approach results in a skewed approach in taming unscrupulous internet firms who can infringe on user privacy in countries where the laws are lax and adopt a guarded approach in countries with stringent laws.
According to Google, the Street View project was intended to collect data to enhance/develop next generation location-based internet services. With increased calls for privacy and internet security it is becoming more and more challenging for internet firms to research and develop new products. The salient question is who will midwife the birth of new technologies in the Internet sphere as privacy concerns muzzle the capacity of industry players to do so.