When it comes to mobile devices, maps and retail, the know-it-all of the Internet suddenly doesn’t have all the answers.
1. “We know what you did last summer.”
“Google, the giant search-engine company, has looked unusually vulnerable lately: It rattled financial markets on Thursday when it announced a 20% drop in third-quarter profits — and it accidentally released the results prematurely, to boot.
Yet despite the flap, Google.com’s dominance in search is unrivaled. And it owes that dominance not only to the way it dispenses information to consumers, but also to the surprising amount of data it collects from them.
Google GOOG privacy rules have come under scrutiny in the U.S. too. In August, the Federal Trade Commission fined Google $22.5 million to settle charges that the company had bypassed privacy settings in Apple’s AAPL -1.14% Safari browser on mobile and desktop devices in order to track users with “cookies” — little pieces of code — and target them with advertising. Google did not admit that any law had been violated and it removed the cookies from Apple’s browsers. A spokesman says it aggregates data and doesn’t sell it to third parties.
But the beef privacy experts have with Google extends to the real world as well: In the race to improve mapping technology, Google has been developing a 3-D feature that uses small planes to photograph major cities. Indeed, Google plans to cover metropolitan areas populated by 300 million people in multiple countries, by the end of the year. Trouble is, those individuals aren’t being consulted — and may not want high resolution pictures of their homes on the Internet. Nick Pickles, director of U.K.-based civil-liberties group Big Brother Watch, for one, says he thinks Google should ask permission before using pictures of people’s homes in its mapping systems, even though it isn’t required to by law. “This 3-D surveillance takes the cameras over the garden fence,” he says.
For its part, Google says its imagery is acquired using commonly available commercial airplanes, adding that it doesn’t currently need to blur aerial imagery, because the resolution isn’t sharp enough for it to be a concern.”