Google insists that the data sweeps were "unintentional" and that at any rate, were only viewed a very limited number of times, by mistake. You're not the only one who's dubious. Massachusetts congressman Ed Markey has asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to determine whether Google's privacy breach broke the law. Galaxy Internet Services, an ISP based in Newton, has brought suit. And Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal — currently leading the race for Senate in the Nutmeg State — is heading a multi-state investigation.
In June, Representative John Conyers of Michigan requested that Google CEO Eric Schmidt enlighten him as to just how those cars came to intercept that Wi-Fi info. In his letter, Conyers got out the virtual police tape, asking that Google "retain the data collected by its Street View cars, as well as any records related to the collection of such data, until such time as review of this matter is complete."
It was about this time that Conyers sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's twerpy bazillionaire of a CEO, inquiring whether the site shared user data "without the knowledge of the account holders."
But however much kerfuffle there was about Facebook's Orwellian Beacon program or its labyrinthine privacy settings, no matter how sinister David Fincher's new The Social Network makes Zuckerberg's enterprise seem (never mind the leaked IM messages reported in the most recent New Yorker, where he describes his gathering of user info with haiku-like sangfroid — "people just submitted it/ i don't know why/ they 'trust me'/ dumb fucks") — when it comes to privacy, Facebook is probably the least of your problems.
Sure, it's bad. "The interplay between the multiple options is so complex" on Facebook, says Polonetsky. "Your location. What apps you use. Your friends' apps. Different segments of your profile. Your contact information. It's this incredibly complicated maze. Even I gotta sit sometimes and think before I answer a question."
But too few people realize that this stuff is everywhere these days.
"You go to a site and there's a lot going on!" says Polonetsky. "A lot of different data being collected. Regular cookies. Flash cookies. Behavioral retargeting. Analytics. There's data being sent to an ad exchange. There might be an affiliate program because they're selling ads not on a click basis, but on a commission basis. There's 20 or 30 places your browser may go when you visit a site, and then [there's] all the different things you have to do if you want to turn that off. Your cookie settings. Your Adobe Flash player settings. You could spend hours just disabling the data transmission that happens."
He added, "I think we're at this really interesting time."
The omniscient eye of corporate-abetted Big Brother may get the blockbuster treatment in the Post. But oftentimes privacy intrusions grow much closer to home — and are much more damaging.
"We used to think of the threat as 'us against them,' " says Tien. "Now, because of the Internet and ubiquitous portable devices, there's a much more lateral threat as well." After all, "kids can ruin each other's privacy without really even trying. They think they're just in a Facebook squabble, but there are a lot of other people who have access to that data. So there's both a Big Brother problem and a Little Brother problem. And that Little Brother problem has gotten worse."