Google’s Wi-Fi data-collection blunder couldn’t have come at a worse time. The company is already under scrutiny over its business and privacy practices largely due to it becoming one of the biggest web companies in the world. So, revealing that it has been collecting publicly available but potentially personal info from unprotected wireless networks couldn’t have gone unnoticed. And Google’s mistake, it says it didn’t know it was collecting the personal data
, should definitely be investigated by the proper authorities.
But there’s another group just as eager as regulators for Google to mess up, the media, particularly the mainstream media. Nothing is more exciting than a scandal and public outrage keeps newspapers selling and draws in visitors. And if public outrage doesn’t come naturally, a bit of scaremongering goes a long way.
Favoring the sensational is not unexpected from a publication like the Daily Mail, a British tabloid. The newspaper ‘revealed
’ the company’s secret ploy of acquiring everyone’s Wi-Fi details and then using them for mobile targeted ads, two weeks after Google admitted to having collected the data. The gist of it is: Google secretly collected the wireless network data without telling anyone or asking for permission. It planned to then use that data to sell to advertisers who wanted to target potential customers who were near their stores, restaurants, and so on.
To a degree, this is true, Google didn’t actively inform regulators or the public that it was gathering Wi-Fi data along with shooting photos for Street View. The company now says that this has been a mistake and that it should have been more transparent. However, it was no secret either that Google was indeed collecting Wi-Fi location data.
The second part, which implies that Google is using your personal data to sell ads, is even more disingenuous. Of course, it’s not an outright lie, Google, and other companies are, indirectly, using Wi-Fi data to target mobile ads. The way it works now, if you search for something on your mobile phone, or use an app with advertising, those ads can be tailored based on your location. But the location of the mobile phone is not revealed automatically to the advertisers. And more often than not, using the location data, the ads become much more relevant.
But since the ‘truth’ isn’t that spectacular, the tabloid adds a bit of fantasy to the story for good measure. It claims that, “There are fears” of users being bombarded by mobile advertising as they stroll along a street, by using Google’s ‘secretly’ collected data. Anyone who has ever used a smarphone or has the slightest bit of knowledge about how this thing works will know that a phone doesn’t broadcast its location over the web, just to the network operator, and that ads don’t just magically appear on your phone out of thin air. It would be technically possible to do this, but that’s not how phones work today.
There are other assumptions, exaggerations, theoretical implications in the article, and others from the publication, but the Daily Mail is just one example. The Telegraph, a more ‘highbrow’ publication in the UK, isn’t afraid of hyperbole itself, starting from the title
, “Google has mapped every WiFi network in Britain.” Again, anyone with even little understanding of wireless networking, or just basic common sense, would know that this would be impossible.
Even if it set out to do it, it’s hard to believe that Google would be able to map “every” Wi-Fi router in an entire country. There are plenty of routers that would have simply been too far away from the Street View cars to register. Even so, since Google finished collecting photos in the UK, plenty of new routers must have been set up, and older ones removed or have had their location changed. An accurate statement would have been, “Google has mapped most of the WiFI networks in Britain.” But it just doesn’t have the same punch, does it? The rest of the article is mostly balanced, but the ‘bait and switch’ technique is probably not the best way to build trust in your audience, even if you are the largest broadsheet newspaper in the UK.
These are just a couple of examples, there are plenty of others, and, as things drag on, there will be plenty more, this is just how the media works. No one is saying that Google is innocent. It made a huge mistake, unknowingly or not, and it shouldn’t go unnoticed. What’s more, Google’s general lack of transparency after it has revealed its mistake doesn’t help. It recently failed to meet a deadline
for handing over the collected data to German regulators for investigation. And its explanation for the mistake is a bit weak, so it would be very interesting to know how exactly all of this happened. Hopefully, things will clear up in the coming weeks, but the matter will haunt Google for years to come.