Posts filed under ‘Google’

Accidental spies

Google’s feeling the heat in Germany and Australia. Co-founder, Sergey Brin, admitted that Google has “screwed up”. I guess that’s what you call it when you hack into 600GB of private wireless data, in over 30 countries, whilst cruising the streets snapping images for the Street View mapping service. Oh, how silly of me: Google “accidentally” managed to capture that 600GB of data, they didn’t intentionally set out to hack into private networks. But Google: I think you’ll find the finger of wire-tapping pointed at you. To appreciate the seriousness of Google’s accidental spying, they were collecting data that potentially includes emails, passwords, Facebook or Twitter updates and Web sites visited. And when you think about it, Google probably knows more about you and me than any Government does and yet Google is not regulated.

This “inadvertent” collection of data has led to Google facing a class action lawsuit, which could see the search engine giant coughing up US$10,000 every time it screws up and collects data from unprotected networks. Two lawsuits have been filed, one in the Oregon federal court and the other in Washington and claim privacy violation pursuant to 18 USC §2511, under which plaintiffs and class members are entitled to $100 a day for each day their data was breached or $10,000 per violation per plaintiff. The two plaintiffs are Vicki Van Valin of Oregon and Neil Mertz of Washington, who claim that their homes’ wireless networks were not password protected and that the Street View vans cruised by their residences at least once. The lawsuit states in part:

“When Google created its data collection systems on its GSV [Google Street View] vehicles, it included wireless packet sniffers that, in addition to collecting the user’s unique or chosen Wi-Fi network name (SSID information), the unique number given to the user’s hardware used to broadcast a user’s WiFi signal (MAC address, the GSV data collection systems also collected data consisting of all or part of any documents, emails, video, audio, and VoIP information being sent over the network by the user [payload data]“.

The plaintiffs successfully applied for a temporary restraining order against Google and this prevents the search giant from deleting the collected data. Valin works for a technology company and works from home a fair bit. This would mean that a significant amount of data Valin sends over her wireless network is subject to her employer’s non-disclosure agreement. This could make things very interesting for Google and, in comparison, Facebook’s ongoing privacy bungles look kinda rosy.

Seems that New Zealand’s Privacy Commissioner is also interested in asking Google a few questions because oh nooooooo, shock, horror, Google accidentally collected data in NZ too. And the only time I’m likely to agree with Australia’s Communications Minister, Stephen “Internet Filter” Conroy, is when he said: “The code that the computer program collects is designed to collect this information..Yes, I’m saying they wrote a piece of code designed to do it….(and that this has been) the largest privacy breach in history across western democracies“.

BTW: don’t you think that Page and Brin are a couple of toothy dudes?

Photo credit: SMH.

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May 26, 2010 at 1:00 am 2 comments

Achtung Google!

I’m watching with interest a simmering cat fight that could boil over soon. Germany is looking at Google, closely, very closely and the German Federal Commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, Peter Schaar, is not happy with the search giant, saying that Google may been in breach of German privacy law.

Regular ThinkingShift readers know of my distaste for Google’s Street View service. After being pressed by the German Government to cough up information on the Wi-Fi data contained on the hard drives of Google’s Street View cars, Google posts (what sounds like) a transparent, open post.

The story goes like this: Google has allegedly been collecting private data on individuals by scanning for private wireless networks and recording the details whilst cruising streets with those ugly Google Street View vans. European officials were concerned about Google’s activities and demanded they reveal the type of data collected. Cornered, Google admitted that private data had been collected but oops, it was a programming error, and we didn’t mean to do it, sorry. But it seems that what Google was busy collecting was not just the names and addresses of private citizens but also information sent over the network such as emails and what websites were visited by those citizens.

Illegally tapping into private networks is against German law so Google is in hot water. Peter Schaar isn’t taking any of Google’s excuses lying down, saying:

‘‘So everything was a simple oversight, a software error! The data was collected and stored against the will of the project’s managers and other managers at Google. If we follow this logic further, this means: The software was installed and used without being properly tested beforehand. Billions of bits of data were mistakenly collected, without anyone in Google noticing it, including Google’s own internal data protection managers, who two weeks ago were defending to us the company’s internal data protection practices.’

If German data protection authorities had not demanded Google reveal what exactly was on the hard drives of Street View cars, then I wonder if Google would ever have admitted to “the software error”. Ah, I doubt it.

And German citizens are none too happy about Street View either, with many private home owners signing up to have their properties excluded from the spying Google eyes. I can assure Google that should they ever try to come down the driveway of our rural property in New Zealand, a huge cat fight will erupt. One poor woman in the UK has been captured by the cruising vans not once, not twice, but 43 times as she innocently strolls down a Suffolk street, walking the dog.

Google: your credibility is evaporating dudes.

UPDATE: 18/05/2010 Google’s woes are going from bad to worse – the Australian Privacy Commissioner is also asking questions of Google since the internet behemoth admitted it had “inadvertently” been recording Wi-Fi data from unsecured wireless networks in over 30 countries. Electronic Frontiers Australia and the Australian Privacy Foundation have sent Google a “please explain” joint letter and are pressing Google to reveal what data its Street View cars and vans actually collect. Can’t wait to hear Google’s latest response: “oh, we’ve been collecting heaps of data about private citizens in over 30 countries for four years?  Really? We had no idea: must be a programming error. We’ll get back to you”.

All this sounds like Facebook’s latest debacle over privacy issues – and what’s happening now with Facebook? People are leaving it in droves. I have a Facebook “presence”, basically a cartoon cat avatar and minimal information. I think I will now even de-activate this. Note: there is a difference between deleting stuff off Facebook and de-activating your account. It seems Facebook retain the data (eg photos, your connections blah blah) and can data mine it to death.

Mark May 31 in your diaries as “Quitting Facebook Day” – there’s a whole website devoted to quitting Facebook on that day. I plan to join the exodus.

UPDATE: May 26 2010 – Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA), Joe Barton (R-TX) and Ed Marley (D-MA) have sent a letter to Google and asking for a reply by June 7. There are 12 juicy questions that Google is being grilled on. Read it here.

UPDATE: May 27 2010 Google is resisting all demands to hand over private internet data to Regulators (and snubs Hong Kong’s Privacy Commissioner whilst it’s at it). Mmmmmm…..if Google “accidentally, inadvertently, oops, we didn’t mean to” collect data, then why are they fighting so hard to deflect any attempts at getting them to handover the collected data?

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May 17, 2010 at 8:57 am 2 comments

Dancing with the dragon

 

Image: A Chinese outside Google's China headquarters in Beijing

No doubt you’ve been reading about the fracas going on between Google and the Chinese Government. If not, go here for a quick run-down.

What are the Chinese after I wonder. Is it just hacking into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists? Or are they after something far juicier like Google’s immense databases and archives and all the information about you and me?

Professor Roger Clarke (Australian consultant and advisor on privacy and dataveillance issues) was interviewed in Crikey and I found what he had to say about Google a bit chilling:

“It’s got all of your search-terms. And it’s got what you clicked on while you’ve been on Google pages. It’s got a list of pretty much every ad you ever clicked on. It’s got any emails that you sent to Gmail users. It’s got what people sent to you from Gmail accounts. It’s got the correspondence that you exchanged with people who, unbeknown to you, flush all of their mail from other accounts through Gmail. It’s got every posting that you’ve sent, since about 2004, to every email-list that you’re on (because at least one person on every list uses Gmail). All of that data is directly related to you because of the email-addresses, IP-addresses and personal names contained in all of that traffic.

That’s reinforced by its use of your email-address as your login id for Google services, and a suite of cookies that are common across all services. If you’re a Google addict, it may also have every location that you ever typed into Google Maps, and every Streetview you ever displayed. And you may have even gifted it your photo collection, and a copy of your own disk-files.

So Google is in a position to mine from its holdings: your online behaviour; your economic and social interests, your political views, your network of contacts and your close associates”.

So what’s the drama you say? Well, what happens when all this juicy data about you falls into the hands of an authoritarian government? Think about that for a moment.

I would applaud Google for threatening to shut down their operations in China and refusing to continue with self-censorship if I thought they were doing so by taking a stand on censorship or human rights violation.  I’ve always thought Google was in violation of  Article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights by censoring searches or blocking websites to keep the Chinese dudes happy. Google isn’t admitting that their hissy fit goes beyond the suggestion that Chinese hackers attacked Gmail accounts of human rights activists. But why the hissy fit now when Google’s been dancing with the Chinese and self-censoring for a few years ? Why the sudden throwing down of the gauntlet to the Chinese over censorship and cyber attacks? I’m sure Google hasn’t just woken up to the fact that they were dealing with the Chinese and not the neutral Swiss!

There are mutterings that Google is using cyber-terrorism and censorship as a smokescreen to get the hell out of China and extract itself from business failings there.  The Chinese market is dominated by the search giant, Baidu, with Google only having a 30% share of China’s $1 billion search market.

Is Google really living up to its “don’t be evil” motto by going up against the Chinese dragon? Does it really believe that the Chinese government will bow down to a US company?

Call me cynical but I think with questions being asked about Google’s plans to digitise millions of books; Google being criticised in several European countries over Street View and invasion of privacy; and data security concerns over its cloud computing apps – well, frankly Google could do with a good news story of being seen to take the high moral ground. It will be interesting to see how this plays out for Google and what will it mean for US-China relations?

January 15, 2010 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Google: where’s the coffee table book?

You know I don’t like Google Street View but I will say that some of the images Street View is capturing are a new photographic genre. The Google behemoth sends out an army of cars that often look like this:

and every ten to twenty metres, cameras automatically capture whatever moves through their frame. The images are then stitched together to create panoramic views, which hopefully blur people’s faces or car license plates.

Jon Rafman, who is an artist from Montreal, Canada, started collecting Street View images and has published a photographic essay showing the world according to Google and physical spaces that are reminiscent of grainy street shots from the early era of photography. Rafman refers to Google’s unbiased recording and capturing of reality, which I suppose it is because the cameras and cars just cruise around going snap, snap.  I like how he describes it:

Street View collections represent our experience of the modern world, and in particular, the tension they express between our uncaring, indifferent universe and our search for connectedness and significance.

Frankly, I’ve not thought of Street View in this way before as I’ve been too busy focusing on privacy aspects. But I guess Google is recording our physical world in a way that will be interesting for future historians to explore.  Here are some of the photos Rafman has collected but I urge you to read his photographic essay to see how an artist interprets the visual aesthetics of Street View images. Some of the images remind me of lomography and its emphasis on casual, unpredictable, spontaneous shots. I wonder when Google will publish a coffee table book of Street View images – some of them are really quiet haunting and beautiful. Sad that I have to admit this, but admit it I do. Happy face for Google!

January 12, 2010 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Dirty little secrets

I recently read an article that carried comments from Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, that frankly I thought were pretty dismissive towards those who are concerned about online privacy. He said: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place“. Mmmm…and this is from the man who whacked CNet over the head and banned them for a year after the site published information about him it had discovered on ahem, Google. (This is a bit like Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, being caught by Facebook’s new privacy settings. Candid shots of him were splashed over the Internet before he locked his profile to allowing access to “friends of friends”. My personal favourite shot is the teddy bear one).

BTW: be aware that the new privacy settings on Facebook mean that the default settings make most of your content accessible to “everyone” (ie the whole planet, the whole universe, EVERYONE).  All your personal information – your name, profile picture, where you live, gender, networks and friends, and the pages that you are a fan of – will be treated as publicly available information. You want that? If so, good luck.

You have to wonder why Zuckerberg suddenly locked down all his personal stuff. Gawker quipped: “Facebook’s own chief executive is illustrating that his privacy settings are so baffling that even he himself doesn’t grasp their full implications“. LOL.

But back to Schmidt. His comment is a bit like saying “you got dirty little secrets? then don’t use any Google applications, because search engines, including Google, retain your info”. So the really important question is: should you choose to use Google Docs or other Google apps that require you to use your Google sign-on, to what extent are you subject to the US Patriot Act? If you’re living in Australia, or Holland, or Canada or South Africa – are you subject to this Act? I started wondering about this when I read Schmidt’s comments and when Facebook tinkered around with its privacy settings yet again. So let’s find out.

Well, there is one glaring case study we can examine. Canada’s LakeHead University decided to replace its ageing infrastructure by adopting Google email and collaboration tools. Good idea you’d think because it saved the Uni hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it meant that emails and documents sent by email to the US from Canadian university staff became subject to the US Patriot Act, which basically gives the US Government the right to access or search virtually any data hosted by US companies (and this of course includes Google, a company based in Mountain View, California). And the U.S. Justice Department can subpoena search records. This is all at odds with Canada’s very strict privacy laws.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the US FBI to issue a national security letter, which compels a third-party, such as ISPs, financial institutions and telecommunications firms, to disclose customer information. And Section 215 includes a “gag order”, meaning the third-party cannot reveal to any other party that it has been served with a national security letter. So if a Canadian company is a subsidiary of a US company and the US parent is whacked with the national security letter, any information held in subsidiary locations would have to be coughed up. No warrant is required. (This is my understanding from reading Section 215). This would apply I presume to firms based in Australia with a US parent. Think of it this way: information crossing the US border in a fiber-optic cable is treated the same way as papers carried in a briefcase. Canada has done a huge amount of work in sorting out the implications of trans-border data flows. Go here for FAQs on the Patriot Act.

And I think the US Patriot Act has tremendous impact on cloud security. So if cloud service providers have data centres in the US, the information is in danger of being exposed. Should you choose to store your personal data in the cloud (business records and sensitive corporate documents, emails etc) then I think you will have inadequate legal protection over your own data.

This prompted me to find out where the heck Google data centres are located and I came across the map below. Also read this Data Center Knowledge FAQ, which covers in detail Google’s servers and data centres.

Australia doesn’t appear to have a data centre or server (although there were rumblings earlier in 2009 that Google would build one in Oz. This seems to be on hold until the Federal Government sorts out the broadband network). So if there’s no local data centre or server, then where is the personal financial document you stored in Google Docs actually held? The Patriot Act makes all data stored on US shores liable to inspection – this would contravene the EU’s Data Protection Act I would think (ie cause a huge cat fight) although I’m presuming the EU-US Safe Harbor program also provides protection. I’m not so sure what protects Australians. I’m looking into it – leave a comment if you know more.

The point is we are increasingly seduced by Google. It’s a clever company with clever apps. Just think about your online privacy protection. I need to come up to speed with the Patriot Act. Several provisions of the Patriot Act are due to expire December 31 2009 unless renewed by Congress but Obama is seeking to extend its spying provisions.

December 19, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Swiss snap

I continue to love the Swiss. Awhile back, I told you how the Swiss privacy watch dog was raising concerns about Google Street View cruising the streets of Switzerland and accused Google of potentially not protecting private citizens’ privacy. Well, now the skirmish is shaping up to be a huge cat fight to watch because the Swiss are hauling Google’s ass into court. Happy face :-)

The Swiss are making demands and asking for a temporary injunction to stop the Google juggernaut. Apparently, Google did not comply with the Swiss Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner’s recommendations around making Street View more palatable for the privacy-obsessed Swiss. Naughty Google. Here are the Swiss demands:

  • up to one week before Google cruises into a town or city snapping images, they are to inform authorities. (Guess this would give people like me, who have an aversion to Street View, time to erect barricades around the home to stop the Google eye from peering into my backyard. But doesn’t really give one a chance to mount a legal challenge, so not sure that this demand goes anywhere really);
  • remove any pictures of enclosed areas such as walled gardens and private streets;
  • blur faces and car plate images. Since arriving in Switzerland earlier this year, it’s alleged photos of people and cars are identifiable and insufficiently blurred, especially around sensitive areas such as schools or hospitals.

Naturally, I’ll be watching this space. I think this is the first time Google has faced a law suit from a Government agency.

But here’s an interesting question. I conducted a webinar last weekend on Intellectual Property Rights for my students in Hong Kong. We were talking about copyright, industrial design, patents and so on. So..I wonder…let’s just say your home is designed by an architect. Even better, let’s imagine that the architect is you. So you would have drawings, plans, computer-assisted designs etc. Architects can protect their designs through copyright.  For example, in the US, Congress passed the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act (AWCPA), which amended the Copyright Act to specifically include “architectural works” among the list of protected works in 17 U.S.C. § 102. Let’s also say that your partner is a sculptor and has some original works – statues – in the garden.

So along comes Google’s Street View car. Snap, snap. The image of your house and the sculpture are plastered on the internet via Street View. Is this infringement of copyright?

Image credit: Wikipedia

November 20, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Convert now!

muccicrop-420x0A ThinkingShift reader from New Zealand sent me a link to an article that really extends Thomas Friedman’s New York Times piece. As we well know, Google is one of the most powerful entities on Earth and its shadow looms over the very future of the Internet. We Google this and that and many of us rely on the Google search engine for ‘the answer’.

We seem to be so in awe of Google that one Canadian dude has set up the Church of Google. No joke. Presumably his religion is called Googlism or Googology. The Church offers 9 proofs and I quote:

1. Google is the closest thing to an omniscient (all-knowing) entity in existence.

2. Google is everywhere at once (omnipresent).

3. Google answers prayers. (”As an example, you can quickly find information on alternative cancer treatments, or new and innovative medical discoveries, and generally anything that resembles a typical prayer.”)

4. Google is potentially immortal.

5. Google is infinite. (The internet can theoretically grow forever.)

6. Google remembers all.

7. Google can do no evil. (Google’s corporate philosophy is ”do no evil”.)

8. Google is believed. (The term ”Google” is searched for more than the terms ”God”, ”Jesus”, ”Allah”, ”Buddha”, ”Christianity” and ”Islam” combined.)

9. Evidence of Google’s existence is abundant. No faith is required.

There are even the 10 Commandments of Google. Now, once I recovered from my coughing fit and picked myself up from the floor, I checked out the Church site to see if it was all tongue-in-cheek. Could anyone actually be seriously suggesting that the Google search engine is the closest humankind has ever come to directly experiencing an actual God?? So who is Satan then? Bing?

Clearly, this parody religion can join the ranks of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (aka Pastafarianism) and is a humorous attempt at demonstrating that Google is pretty well omniscient and remembers everything.  And the religious day is September 14, when Google was first registered as a company. Mmmmm..I must note this in my diary as a religious holiday and take the day off work!  I wonder how one can become a Minister of the Church of Google. Ah, here’s the answer.

Amusing I’m sure to hear there is a Church of Google but there’s a serious undertone to this.  Google is the window to the internet for many of us. Some of us use Google Docs, gmail, Google Maps, Google Earth and Street View. You remember the recent incident when Google was attacked and tagged the web as malware and was virtually useless ? It showed what can happen when we rely too heavily on a single vendor who provides us with nifty products and services. If Ask.com had gone down, I’m not so sure many of us would have noticed. I read somewhere that in the hour or so Google was having its hissy fit, everyone rushed over to Yahoo! But guess what? The moment Google was back up, everyone rushed back to Google.

Google is becoming a monoculture. It is getting too powerful in the search and online advertising space IMHO. I for one am very concerned over the Google book settlement (which potentially could give Google the right to create the world’s largest digital library and create issues for future scholars). I will blog on this soon.  And did you read that Google has teamed up with Hasbro to launch a Google Maps version of Monopoly?

What next: Google Water? Google mobile? Google chewing gum? Google electricity? Perhaps not such a stretch of the imagination. Google is involved in water research and they’ve already produced an electricity power meter.  What can happen in a Google-only world? Here’s a few ideas:

  • innovation is stifled as search engine start-ups would find it difficult to launch themselves against the Google ediface (last statistic I read, Google had 63.1% of the search engine market. That’s a tough lead to beat).
  • Google could control the rules – business and private citizens would have to use Google the way it is. Too bad if you dislike their collection of data about you or the costs of online advertising.
  • Google dominates the media – there’s Google News and Google TV ads. I can imagine (as with the Google Books proposal) Google archiving and indexing every TV show ever produced – so we can sit back and one day watch Google TV online (and you’d probably have to enter your gmail account info to be able to access it).
  • I remember freaking out when I read George Dyson’s piece, Turing’s Cathedral. He was talking about a visit to Google and was told by one of his hosts following a talk – “We are not scanning all those books to be read by people…We are scanning them to be read by an AI.” So imagine if you will artificial intelligence scanning humanity’s knowledge in the form of digitised media, search patterns and user behaviour. Where could this lead to?  The freaky thing is that for this year’s April Fool’s day, Google announced it had developed CADIE: Cognitive Autoheuristic Distributed-Intelligence Entity and that CADIE had managed to create a blog by extracting patterns from the social web pages indexed by Google. Many a true word is said in jest – so perhaps Google are well down the path of AI.

Of course, Google is not holding a gun to our collective heads. We have a choice. Or do we? Who is Google’s real competitor out there? Twitter? Possibly. Because Twitter has the real-time conversation and search that Google doesn’t. But Twitter so far isn’t diversifying its base and getting into maps, web-based word processing, email, water research and so on.

What would happen if Google got its claws into the Invisible Web? I read recently that Google only indexes about 6% of the publicly available pages on the internet. I’ll do a post soon on how to navigate through the Invisible Web.

Meanwhile, I’m off for a lie down.

September 10, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

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