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Googlegate: Mapping a scandal of global proportions

Google is not above the law

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Isn't it all random noise?

Now many people might ask what the data is worth? Surely it is just random noise? This isn't the case, the data is incredibly rich as it contains the IP address of the user, the IP addresses of the services they are using, the content of those communications such as web pages or emails and more importantly it was tagged with GPS data.

As many are aware, Google already stores and retains IP addresses and search data and over time builds up a profile of individuals based on their online behaviours, which it argues allows it to deliver more relevant advertising. But one thing Google has not been able to do until now is accurately predict where you live (unless you tell them), as IP addresses are not generally registered to a real person – they are usually registered to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) which in turn allocates an IP address to you. Whereas there is limited geographical information on an IP address - usually to the country level though sometimes more granular - by correlating this Wi-Fi data with existing IP data Google would then be in a position to determine your geographical location to literally within a few meters.

There is a real value in this for location-based advertising, which attracts a premium compared to generic advertising as it is more focused. Whereas before, Google may have given you an ad for Asda if you were searching for a pair of jeans, with this geo-validation of IP addresses it could now give you an ad for a clothing store two streets away. If you think of it in terms of a picture of a map – before this Wi-Fi data was available, Google was looking at a map of the UK with a very low resolution; no roads or towns, just a blank shape which represents the UK. With this Wi-Fi data Google is now looking at a very detailed map and can zoom in to your street and probably even your house. I use this analogy because it is easily illustrated simply by going to Google Maps and playing with the zoom feature.

Now some people will be yelling at me again, only this time they will be saying: “So what? Surely presenting more relevant adverts only benefits me?” Whereas it is true that some people are happy with this level of exposure and profiling, many of us find it offensive and creepy, which is why we have laws such as RIPA and Wireless Telegraphy Act to ensure that our communications are not compromised. There is a huge philosophical argument that one could go into at this point about why privacy is important for democracy and dignity and why it is a fundamental human right, but frankly that is an entirely different article.

The facts of the issue at hand are quite simply as follows:

Google intercepted and retained vast amounts of private communications data, which is an unlawful act. We believe Google intended to carry out this activity which makes it a criminal act. As such we (and many other people around the world) feel that Google needs to be held to the same standards as individual members of the public and held to account for these actions using the remedies afforded under the law.

If you or I were to wander around London recording the contents of communications from politicians, retailers and the general public, it is fair to assume we would be arrested and prosecuted in short order. Why then, should a global corporation not be treated in the same way?

Google is not above the law, irrespective of how many lobbyists it employs or how much wealth it holds. In all likelihood Google can absorb any financial penalties issued as a result of these prosecutions with very little impact on its wealth. But if we allow Google to simply do as it wishes without the concern of being held to account for its actions we are sending a dangerous message to the industry that it is above the law. By prosecuting Google, we can hopefully bring about changes, not just within Google to ensure this never happens again, but also across the industry as a whole.

Furthermore, no corporation should ever be able to hide behind a defence of ignorance or non intent. They have the resources to hire the right people to make sure that procedures and practices are in place to prevent these problems from ever occurring and they have an obligation to invest those resources accordingly. It should never be the case that corporations are permitted to exist above the law. In fact the opposite should be true – corporations should be held to much higher standards of behaviour than an individual for the exactly the same reasons. ®

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