Recalculating the privacy debate after Google Maps penalty

Google's string of privacy invasions reveals a need to rethink privacy and end a piecemeal, reactive approach. Asserting privacy as an asset would help.

Luc Vincent, Google engineering director, demonstrates how Google captures images in hard-to-reach places with Street View Trekker at the Google offices in San Francisco last June.

Google has once again earned an official censure for breaching a boundary on privacy. On Tuesday, it agreed to pay $7 million to 38 states for collecting Wi-Fi data, such as passwords and browser history, while its vehicles took ground-level images for Google Maps.

The punishment follows a $22.5 million fine last year after Google bypassed privacy settings on the Safari browser as well as a 2011 settlement for violating its own privacy rules on its Buzz social media.

By now, consumers and citizens may have detected a pattern: New technologies allow new types of privacy invasions, which then lead to ad hoc remedies – until the next type of intrusion.

This pattern goes back to the 1880s, when many states passed laws to prevent the disclosure of telegram messages. In 1903, New York was the first state to allow people to sue for invasion of privacy. The latest frontier is setting limits on the use of video cameras in public places.

As the string of Google violations shows – along with dozens of new privacy laws passed since the 1970s – the pace of this cat-and-mouse privacy quest has quickened in the Digital Age. Even a mighty Internet company like Google, whose informal motto is “do no evil,” can falter when it creates new technologies with new uses without always knowing exactly what privacy guardrails society expects.

The basic need is to better define the purposes of privacy rather than simply react to the fear of losing it. If tech users, companies, and government had a broad consensus on the benefits of privacy, then it would be easier to design comprehensive and consistent policy. Lawmakers and law enforcers would not always be playing catch-up with the latest “violation,” and coming up with a patchwork of solutions.

Google could even adopt an affirmative motto, such as “do good.”

Trying to balance privacy fears with privacy’s virtues isn’t new. The founder of The Christian Science Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy, started the newspaper in 1908 just as the spread of newspapers also led to a rise in concern over a media delighting in prurient gossip and personal attacks (“yellow journalism”). She designated the Monitor’s motto “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind.”

Scholars who study privacy see its benefits in allowing freedom of thought, solitude for regeneration, and intimacy for healthy relationships. When Harvard University was caught last week reading parts of e-mails from its deans, academics asserted the need for independence of thinking in a research setting – as well as bemoaning a loss of privacy.

Privacy promotes dignity, reserve, innovation, and self-reliance for individuals. Any laws on privacy must affirm those qualities even as they deal with fears over identity theft, abuse of digitized medical records, or big-brother surveillance of one’s travels and tastes via smart phones.

Europe has stricter laws on privacy because it has a broader consensus on the core values of privacy. Google, Microsoft, and other tech giants get tripped up more easily in Europe.

Pragmatic and coherent regulation toward privacy in the United States will require a shift in thinking to see privacy as a resource and asset. Instead of simply defending the legal doctrine that “a man’s home is his castle,” let’s agree on why the castle serves a purpose.

Not doing evil is easier when the focus is on doing good.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly referred to Safari as Google's browser.]

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