Is Google the new News Corp?

It is alleged that some Google employees knew its Street View cars were collecting sensitive personal data, and then covered it up. As media pressure increases and regulators consider new investigations, trust in Google could soon be on a par with Rupert Murdoch.

Michael

The added media interest comes in the wake of findings by the US’s Federal Communications Commission. It says the software that collected information such as emails and passwords from unprotected Wi Fi networks was designed specifically for the purpose, and knowingly installed into Street View cars, which photograph streets around the world.

Now the UK regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office, is looking into the report. It previously let Google off without a fine, after accepting the tech company’s assurance that the data was collected accidentally and that it wasn’t personally identifiable.

The FCC says a Google engineer, named in the New York Times as Briton Marius Milner, created the programme and warned colleagues of what information it was capable of collecting. Documents show that managers then approved its use. Milner has refused to incriminate himself by commenting to either the FCC or the press.

This ‘one rogue engineer’ explanation sounds creepily reminiscent of News Corp, and its initial denials that phone hacking at its newspapers went beyond News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman. The FCC even goes as far as to claim that Google “deliberately impeded and delayed” its investigation.

Google continues to assert that it had no intention of using the Wi Fi data it collected to develop any of its products, and that the data collection was inappropriate but not illegal. It also denies impeding the FCC, and says that executives didn’t know the Street View software was designed for Wi Fi data collection when they claimed it was accidental.

As with News Corp, it seems that the best that can be said for Google’s intentions is that it failed to investigate the purpose of this particular Street View software or the level of knowledge in the organisation about what it could do. For a company whose commercial lifeblood is data, I doubt people will feel that is good enough.

This affair and its recent privacy policy changes run the risk that Google is seen as a company that cares above all about how it can profit from people’s data. Far from making everyone more open about sharing information, it is damaging trust in the data marketing industry as a whole.

Could we one day see a Leveson-like inquiry laying bare all the secrets that Google is currently hoarding?

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