Google Australia escapes sanctions on a technicality for WiFi snoop privacy breach

But Federal Police on the case

By Rick Jelliffe
July 11, 2010

The Australian Privacy Commissioner found against my formerly odious neighbour Google Australia, but has been stopped from penalizing them by a well-known loophole:

Under the current Privacy Act, I am unable to impose a sanction on an organisation when I have initiated the investigation. My role is to work with the organisation to ensure ongoing compliance and best privacy practice.

Australian Minister of Communication Sen. Conroy has called the company creepy and the Australian Attorney General has referred the matter to the Federal Police. He said Google Australia had committed single greatest breach in the history of privacy" when it collected information from wireless networks.

The Privacy Commissioner found:

"On the information available I am satisfied that any collection of personal information would have breached the Australian Privacy Act.

"Collecting personal information in these circumstances is a very serious matter. Australians should reasonably expect that private communications remain private.

Google has taken the line that the code found its way into the hundreds of StreetView vehicles around the world by accident. Perhaps the Chinese did it. Google Australia's apology on their official blog has a tearful last paragraph.

We want to reiterate to Australians that this was a mistake for which we are sincerely sorry. Maintaining people's trust is crucial to everything we do and we have to earn that trust every single day. We are acutely aware that we failed badly here.

But the initial paragraph contains the utterly incredible weasling:

To be clear, we did not want and have never used any payload data in our products or services--and as soon as we discovered our error, we announced that we would stop collecting all WiFi data via our Street View vehicles and removed all WiFi reception equipment from them.

That might be good enough if the problem was in one country, but it seems the same thing was done in multiple countries. One country is a SNAFU. Multiple countries means a corporate culture with inadequate training in privacy issues, or inadequate executives or procedures, or more likely that in fact Google really just couldn't give a stuff until it blew up, which seems to have been the conclusion that Senator Conroy reached. CNET says it was 600 gig of data in 30 countries. Over four years.

[I almost met Senator Conroy a couple of years ago. I had to fly to Canberra because Google and IBM etc had kicked up a fuss that I had agreed to step in, at the last minute, to the Standards Australia delegation to the OOXML BRM in Geneva, which I had previously made myself unavailable for, in the interest of reducing controversy. In the end, Sen Conroy had better things to do, sensibly, and we went and briefed a committee instead. I expect politicians have a fine eye for self-serving outrage by commercial rivals.]

In other Google-related legal news, we should expect to see the Californian Supreme Court's finding on Brian Reid's appeal soon, which concern his claims that he was sacked because of age discrimination. I don't have any knowledge of this case. But, really, what can we make of Google's claim that there were no other positions for which he was qualified? I mean, this was one of the fastest growing companies in the world, with hardware (Reid was a Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford) and software interests (Reid's name is up with Charles Goldfarb for independently developing the separation of style and content as used in markup systems today: he did not go as far as Goldfarb in developing generic markup, but his kind of WP-oriented markup is the progenitor of today's ODFs, OOXMLs and CSSs.)

They couldn't find any use for him? Really? Google would seem to be a company severely in need of mature heads, people capable of more than empty sloganizing about social responsibility who can put in place actual programs and procedures, who can complement the excellent talent in engineering and sales.


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