Are Google’s mistakes somehow different to ours?

Have a look at the car on the right at the bottom of this post. It’s one of Google’s fleet of cars used for its Street View service.

We were told that this was a public service, which all could use, and which posed no threat to our privacy.

Two weeks ago, Google admitted that it had been doing more than just taking snaps of our houses, flats, gardens, cars, children and pets. Last week, New Scientist wrote, “…they were not just collecting panoramic photos. Wi-Fi antennas on the cars were hunting down wireless computer networks, and equipment inside was recording the networks’ names, locations and the unique MAC address of the routers supporting them.”

Last Saturday, the Financial Times, 15 May, ran a headline on page 17 of its Companies News section, which read, “Google admits it accidentally gathered Wi-FI data.” It went on to say, “The leading internet company said that it had just discovered that it also had been inadvertently collecting snippets of emails and other internet activity in those homes.”  The paper then added, “Google blamed a programming error.”

Now have a look at the car again.

Does it look like a programming error to you?

You’re right. It does not. Devices to read the MAC of routers do not get put on a car by chance.

Then, on Sunday 16 May, several newspapers reported that Google representatives had been trying to absolve themselves by saying that the capture and recording of wireless computer addresses was a mistake.

What do they mean by mistake?

Do they mean that the equipment was actually intended for US Air Force surveillance aircraft, the Aurora possibly or a bunch of old Lockheed SR-71 Blackbirds recently dragged out of American museums for use over Afghanistan, but which somehow landed up on a fleet of black Vauxhall Astras as a result of confusion at the CIA in Langley? I’ll admit the use of the word black can be tricky.

Or do they really mean that, with the benefit of hindsight and the prospect of regulators chopping off their balls and frying them for tea, the incorporation of electronic snooping wasn’t such a smart idea after all?

And therefore, all things considered, it was a mistake?

They will have to do better than this.

My house and car were photographed by Google. Because my car is in the photo, I was probably at home, and that would have meant that I was probably doing what I’m doing now, using my computer online. I don’t remember giving them permission to record this. Were any of you asked? Don’t bother to reply. Of course you weren’t.

Behaviour like this usually happens when a company starts thinking of it and its employees as being superior beings as opposed to us, its customers, who are merely common people.

Have a look at the stuff on the roof.

Was this a mistake?

So why was the antenna there?

I suspect that Google probably didn’t have one single aim, but one of the objectives would have been to sample emails. If they hadn’t been interested,they wouldn’t have included the capability.

I hope they sample this particular post so that they can be clear that one of their more enthusiastic supporters is very much re-thinking his position.

For the other side of the story, have a look at Alan Eustace’s blog. He’s one of Google’s thousands of senior vice-presidents.