Google angered European officials with its admission last Friday that its fleet of vehicles photographing streets around the world for its Street View service accidentally collected personal information sent by consumers over wireless networks.
"It's now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) WiFi networks," Google Senior Vice President of Engineering and Research Alan Eustace said in a post on Google's official blog on Friday.
The news comes at a time of increasing concern among consumers and regulators about how websites deal with the personal information of their users. It is a blow to Google's reputation as a trusted custodian of personal information of its users.
"This incident is alarming and is further evidence that data privacy is still an alien concept for Google," German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner, a vocal critic of the power of the Internet giants, said over the weekend. "The company appears not to know itself what information it's storing."
German media commentators say the mistake risks undermining public faith in Google and other US-based firms such as Facebook, which enjoy virtual monopolies in Internet sevices. It also highlights a fundamental difference in attitudes towards data privacy between the US and Europe, commentators say. People in the US, which has never experienced dictatorship, have fewer qualms about revealing personal data than Europeans. In the end, though, Web users will have no choice but to reveal information about themselves -- it's the price of using the Internet, say commentators.
Left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:
"It's right that politicians are now calling on Google to do more than just apologize. Legal consequences will need to be reviewed. Ignorance is no protection from punishment if one has committed a serious breach of the data privacy laws. Google rightly is even more worried about the loss of customer faith. It's no secret that all Google services have a certain dialectic: everything that makes digital life more practical will also render users more transparent to Google. Wi-Fi data helps to determine the position of mobile phones more precisely, which is helpful for map services. But users should ask themselves whether the price of this self-exposure isn't too high."
Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"Google Chief Eric Schmidt faces questions about why his staff developed a software that reads and stores data traffic from unsecured private networks. So far there hasn't been an answer that could reassure Google users."
"Google and Facebook are pursuing a dangerous business model that is based on two contradictory goals: on the one hand, they must win the trust of as many users as possible. On the other, they have to supply their advertising customers with as much user data as possible, which can shatter the confidence they have so painstakingly built up. It's a balancing act -- the decisive difference between the two companies lies in the consequences of a possible imbalance. While Google's size and market position allows it to shift the balance to the disadvantage of Web users at least temporarily, such a course can become life-threatening for Facebook."
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The more data one has to reveal in order to use the functions of the Internet, the more important it is to have confidence in the providers of these services. Given that there are more global monopolists in the Internet than in any other medium, it is essential that firms such as Google, Facebook, Apple or Microsoft don't gamble away this trust. Trust will become even more important in the future markets of medical and genetic information that services such as Google Health or 123me are currently conquering."
"But because almost all the digital monopoly positions are held by US companies, there's a lack of awareness of the problem. Data privacy is of secondary importance in the US. This is partly because America hasn't experienced dictatorship. In addition, American society and culture places a much higher value on transparency. That is reflected in legislation. Laws like the Freedom of Information Act help economic regulators to scrutinize the activities of companies and banks, and allows journalists to uncover the double standards of politicians. On the other hand, citizens are under far more surveillance than on the European continent."
"As the functions and the data volume of the Internet grow, one will have to make a choice whether one wants to preserve one's privacy or use the Internet. In principle, that may be a free decision. In practice it isn't."