Akie, Jeff, Dave & I discussed Google’s penchant for stealing user’s data while taking Street View photographs in Thursday’s Perpetual Post.

Right now a debate rages as to whether Google grossly overstepped its bounds by collecting and saving the data of users on wireless unencrypted networks for around 3 years. Frankly, I don’t see how there is any way that Google’s actions are defensible. Even if, as the company’s management claims, higher-ups were actually unaware that this data was being gathered, then the issue is still concerning, because it means that Google has some huge issues as far as supervising its employees or even being aware of what they are doing.

And ultimately, I find their sing-song “we didn’t know it was going on,” defense to be pretty unbelievable. Really, Google? For 3 years, mountains of private citizens’ data was being recorded and stored by your company, and none of the employees who were recording it ever said, ‘Hey, is this thing on? ’ In 3 years? Nobody ever came across the saved files and said, ‘Huh, what is this information and why are we collecting and storing it?’ I suppose this is why Google’s company motto isn’t “Don’t Be Willfully Ignorant”. If the company’s claims are true, and they really had no idea that this data collection was happening, then at the very least it would mean that Google operates pretty much like any other bumbling, corporate bureaucracy. It’s kind of like finding out that there’s no Santa, or that his elves, with or without his knowledge, save and store the records of which children have been naughty or nice for some unknown purpose.

In fact, Google’s famous ‘Don’t Be Evil’ company motto is receiving further scrutiny these days. Upon first blush it seems very hip and fun, the way Google itself seems, with its primary-colored logo and its funny name. ‘We’re like you, except in a billion dollar company!’ it seems to say. ‘Who likes evil? Not us!’ Still, when you think about it, evil is not always easy to define. There are a lot of grey areas, and what’s evil to me might be considered normal and necessary to, perhaps, a huge oil company or, say, a West Virginia coal mine.

It is also unclear at whom the phrase is actually being directed. Now that I think about it, the motto very well could be Google’s way of telling consumers not to be evil, and by ‘evil’ they mean, ‘concerned with their own privacy’ or maybe ‘questioning of Google’s motives’. Man. We should probably stop being so evil.
I am disturbed by the arguments of those who defend Google’s actions by stating that people who use unencrypted wireless networks are essentially asking for their data and information to be recorded by others. Perhaps their surfing habits are not password protected, but does this make them public knowledge? The last time I checked, the data of the kind Google was accused of collecting is not exactly left lying around on a park bench somewhere. Picking it up is not as easy as picking up someone’s dropped shopping list or reading their open diary. And even if it were, would that make it right? Just because my data is not locked up, does that mean it is no longer mine? Is it up for grabs? Is it morally right for someone else to snatch it up without my permission or knowledge? If I leave my diary out, and you read it, sure it’s partly my fault. But it’s your fault too!

The Supreme Court’s recent momentous (or monstrous, depending on your definition of ‘evil’) verdict declaring that corporations have the same rights as people as far as making donations to political candidates has raised an interesting issue as far as Google’s current quandary is concerned. If a corporation is to be treated like a person, then shouldn’t it be held to the same moral standards as a person? Especially when it’s a corporate person who preaches to us about evilness.

For the last few years, Google has built up a reputation as the Fun internet company. It’s young, it’s hip; everyone wants to be seen hanging out with it. But just because we’ve all been out with having a few beers and a few laughs with Google doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say anything when it rifles through our belongings while we’re in the can. You might be our friend, Google, but if you cross the line, we’ll still call you out on it and cut you down to size. We have to make sure you know what our boundaries are and that they need to be respected—otherwise, you might grow bolder, and who knows what you might do next.