Google Maps for the iPhoneEnlarge Photo
Germany, however, wasn't too keen on the idea of Google collecting all that info, and they asked for additional details. In the course of Google's internal investigation, the company realized that it had accidentally been collecting personal data from those public wifi networks. Oops. As a result, Germany forced Google to offer its citizens the ability to opt out of Street View. Google complied, and around the same time, the company announced that it would no longer collect any information about wifi networks, open or otherwise.
Strangely enough, all that tsoris may have been for naught. Initial reports indicated that Germans were flooding Google with opt-out requests, but the case may have been overstated. Today, 240,000 households have chosen to have their homes or businesses hidden from Street View -- which sounds like a huge number, but it's only 2.9% of the population.
Canada recently asked for its own review of Google's info-gathering tactics, and yesterday, a Canadian court found that Google had indeed violated privacy laws -- not because it had gathered wifi network names and addresses, but because it took in personal info from those networks, including whole emails. So far, Canada has no plans to sue Google, but the company does have to dispose of all data collected from wifi networks by February 1, 2011.
Google seems to have navigated these troubled waters pretty well, and its willingness to work with authorities and fess up to problems weighed in its favor. In both Germany and Canada, the intial hue and cry has subsided to a few murmurs on the fringe. We're not sure whether that means that people have gotten used to the idea of Google mapping, or whether they just wanted their voices to be heard. Either way, Google Maps and Street View can continue to dominate the field.
Google's triumph in the courts is good for satnav, too. Users will continue to have access to Google's free maps, and Google can continue improving accuracy. That's nice for people and businesses everywhere.
For privacy, however, it's a mixed bag. At the moment. Google has struck a balance with which many consumers are comfortable. But change lies around the corner.
Think back a decade or so: remember when getting pictures via email or the web was kind of amazing? We all thought, "There's no way it can get better!" And then came video. Bandwidth and tech developments made that possible, and both continue to evolve. It seems inevitable that before long, Google Maps (or some Google competitor) will begin offering regularly updated maps, and ultimately, video.
So we wonder: will the world be so happy with Google (or whomever) when anyone can peek into our backyard at a moment's notice? Will we find ways to maintain a modicum of privacy? Or will we become so jaded by the oversharing that goes on elsewhere (lookin' at you, Twitter), that we won't care if our parents check in and see us skinny-dipping with the neighbors? We can't say for sure, but it might be time to invest in a good bathrobe.