Article first published as Why Google is Left Unpunished? on Blogcritics.
Google is allowed to simply walk away from the confinement of legal system, though it is repeatedly proved by the European and North American countries that it has infringed upon the privacy laws enacted in their countries. Google’s street view project has come under scrutiny from data protection agencies of several countries since the German data commissioner asked Google last year to audit all the data being collected by Street View cars.
Google then revealed that it had discovered the Street View cars were collecting data of personal details from unsecured networks along with the location of wi-fi hotspots. Google has made an unnamed engineer a scapegoat while accepting the mistake it has done. It simply said a code written by an engineer was mistakenly incorporated into the software of the Street View cars.
The question remains here that how Google thinks it is legal to collect the data pertaining to locations of wi-fi hotspots. Are people having wi-fi connections, which are unsecured, meant to be exploited for having unsecured connections? If a house owner forgets to lock his house, and if a theft occurs, will it mean the thief is not supposed to face punishment? Google is only supposed to map the streets but not wi-fi hotspots.
British conservative MP Robert Halfon rejected this as a mistake and alleged that the Google had done the mistake purposefully and it had collected the data for commercial use. This was denied by Google, without giving details of why the collected data was redirected to be stored on hard disks. It seems Google has a policy of not talking too much. Nobody wants it to talk much but it has to talk when its actions are proved to be detrimental to the privacy and human rights of the internet users.
The UK’s information commissioner’s office (ICO) ruled previously that no data breach had occurred. But, after the Canadian government disclosed that if found Google had breached its privacy laws in October, ICO said it would again look into the matter. Now ICO says there was a significant breach of the UK’s Data Protection Act when Google collected personal data via its Street View cars. It added Google would not face fine or punishment but it would audit Google’s data protection practices.
One may wonder how this U-turn occurs. Did it lack technical expertise to find what Google has actually done with its Street View project? Mr. Halfon said while welcoming ICO’s latest ruling that the ICO failed to act when it was supposed to act and asked how ICO can audit Google’s practices when it had already proved that it lacked technical expertise by ruling out any breach of privacy laws by Google, previously. But, ICO says it has sufficient experience to audit Google. Then the question arises why it could not find the breach initially. Halfon said they could not have confidence on ICO and the people felt powerless.
Infringing upon privacy laws is a crime. Otherwise there is no need of the law. As the law is there and Google has committed a crime by infringing upon privacy laws through illegal data collection, Google has to be punished according to the law. When it comes to law it doesn’t matter whether the crime is done purposefully or mistakenly. One cannot believe that Google, the internet giant, did not know what its project was doing, as Halfon said. It knows to write code for data collection, but it doesn’t know the code is not doing what it is supposed to do. Who is innocent here? The UK’s privacy laws, the setup of ICO are a waste of exercise and money if it cannot punish the privacy violators.
Similarly Canadian government said, “This incident was a serious violation of Canadian’s privacy rights.” But, it also said no further action would be taken if Google tightened its privacy policies. What is the mystery here? Google violated privacy rights, which amounts a crime, still it gets no punishment. Google has the same privacy policies then and now. It has very powerful privacy principles. Only thing is it doesn’t follow its own privacy principles, because they are made for others.
Google says it is profoundly sorry. Can a crime be condoned with an apology? Can a petty burglar escape police treatment by offering an apology? In most of the cases of burglary, the property is recovered otherwise of which punishment will be extended. In Google’s case recovery of the data it collected has become doubtful. Robert Halfon says the data must be deleted. But ICO did not say a word on this. Google said, "We are in the process of confirming that there are no outstanding legal obligations upon us to retain the data, and will then ensure that it is quickly and safely deleted." This looks complex. Google has already legal obligations for infringing upon the privacy laws. If the law does not stipulate any punishment, then there is no need of law at all.
As Mr. Halfon said people are left powerless. In democracies, people are supposed to hold highest power through their elected governments. But, it seems the governments have forgotten to represent the interests of the people. People have to think seriously about this.