June 12, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Are Google's moves creeping you out?
Several weeks later, the information technology manager at the French American International School was alerted that a picture of him sitting at the cafe could be found on Google's online map as part of the search giant's new street-level photo view.
"The HR manager ran into me in the hallway, and she pulled me aside and...said, 'Do you know that there are cameras everywhere?'" Israel recounted. "Of course, I was a little freaked out because it's the HR person telling me that we got busted having a coffee next door...My mother is surprised I haven't been fired."
Google's recently unveiled Street View stunned many with its photos of the unsuspecting, from a man climbing a front gate to another walking out of a strip club, but it's hardly the first time the company has compiled a massive database of material that some would want to remain private. Indeed, Google has for years been storing every Web search and analyzing the topics of Gmail so it can serve customers with related advertisements.
But now that Google is serving up images from the sky with Google Earth, creating street-level images with Street View and tracking customer behavior in cyberspace, some are starting to ask: how much is enough? As blogger Michael Rasmussen wrote in a comment about Street View on the Boing Boing blog, "Damn right, it's creepy."
Saturday, the British activist group Privacy International released a scathing report that said the company is "hostile to privacy" and ranked it the lowest out of nearly two dozen major Web sites when it comes to privacy issues.
Google Maps Street View was singled out. "Techniques and technologies (are) frequently rolled out without adequate public consultation (e.g. Street level view)." Google also has a "track history of ignoring privacy concerns," the report said. "Every corporate announcement involves some new practice involving surveillance."
In addition to Google's "aggressive use of invasive or potentially invasive technologies and techniques," the bad grade was given because of the "diversity and specificity" of Google's products and the ability to share data between them, as well as the company's market dominance and number of users.
Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel who oversees privacy issues at Google, argued that the report was inaccurate and misleading, and complained that Google didn't have a chance to respond to the criticisms.
"The allegations in the report misunderstood a number of our products," Wong said. "More importantly, when you look at the actual ranking, it misses the point on a lot of things we do very well."
For instance, the company partially anonymizes part of the Internet Protocol addresses of searchers after 18 to 24 months, while no other company has publicly stated their retention policy, she said. In addition, Google was the only one of 34 Internet companies to challenge a U.S. Justice Department subpoena on Web searches last year, Wong added.
Search engine expert Danny Sullivan sided with Google in his blog Search Engine Land but wondered if Google is entering new and increasingly controversial territory with its latest product.
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