Google: The Company Everyone Loves to Hate?

Google, the company people love to hate?What is it about Google that gets people so riled up? After all, it’s a company that has revolutionized the ease in which we find and process information, not to mention the way we consume video content.

If that seems like an overstatement, just think back 15 years or so to how you once researched questions or searched for information … like trudging to the public library or placing “wish-and-wait-for” phone calls to other offices or government agencies.

Maybe we get frustrated with Google because even though the company’s informal slogan is “Don’t be Evil” … every time we turn around, it seems the company is saying or doing something to (deliberately?) engender consumer dissatisfaction.

Consider the comments of Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, who speaks often about the role of Google and how it relates to the personal privacy of consumers. There he goes, wandering from media outlet to media outlet, dropping bon mots — others might call them “verbal bombshells” — like these:

 “[Google is] building an augmented version of humanity, building computers to help human do the things they don’t do well, better.”

 “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can, more or less, know what you’re thinking about.”

 “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

What’s more, Mr. Schmidt seems to be digging in his heels on Google Maps. I’ve blogged before about this controversial initiative, as it began to become evident that Google was collecting more than just photos of people’s homes.

Just this past week, Google finally admitted that its Street View vehicles had been scooping up a lot more than just “meaningless fragments” of information from unsecured WiFi networks as it sweeps through neighborhoods. The digital harvest has included full e-mail addresses and passwords.

Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president of engineering and research, seemed apologetic. “We are mortified by what happened,” he said.

But Eric Schmidt may have revealed the true feelings of the company when he suggested on CNN’s Parker-Spitzer program that the people who don’t like Google’s Street View vehicles taking pictures of their homes “can just move.”

Of course, complaining about Google is a great armchair activity that may be little more than petting grousing. I know of few (if any) people who would be willing to forego the benefits that Google’s vaunted information and content engine delivers.

Going forward, it does appear that Google may be a bit more receptive to the concerns people have expressed. This past Friday, the company announced that it has appointed a new “director of privacy” across its engineering and product management. Reportedly, Alma Whitten, the person appointed to this position, will be focusing on building privacy controls into products and internal practices.

We’ll see how that goes.

Google’s Wi-Fi Data Collection Snafu

One of the news items that’s been bounding about the web and on the airwaves in recent days concerns an admission by Google that it “screwed up” by gathering private wireless data while taking pictures for its Street View mapping initiative.

The mishap came to light first in Australia, where Google was caught capturing 600 gigabytes worth of wi-fi data from personal and business wireless networks without owners’ permission. Google has since been accused of unauthorized interception of user personal data including e-mails, audio and video, which potentially could be linked to specific addresses.

Google insists that the personal data were “inadvertently” collected during the street sweeps by its large fleet of vehicles cruising cities in more than 30 countries.

[For those who are unfamiliar with Google’s Street View mapping tool, you can view an example here by vicariously sauntering down quaint, quiet Robinwood Avenue in Detroit’s North End – home of the late, lamented Marabel Chanin, the most famous inner city resident you’ve never heard of.]

Some observers may be content to take Google management at its word that personal data were “mistakenly” gathered during its street sweeps – despite the fact that this blunder was evidently repeated in Germany, Italy, France, Denmark, Austria, Ireland, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and the Czech Republic … as well as here in the U.S. in states like Connecticut and Missouri.

Consumer Watchdog calls Google’s action “a flagrant intrusion into consumers’ privacy.” And the Connecticut and Missouri attorneys general are now weighing in as well with their own investigations.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this story is not whether Sergey Brin, Larry Page and the other honchos at Google might or might not have nefarious plans for the use of personal wi-fi data. It’s the realization that such information can be collected at all.

And the next time, it might not be by such a benign organization.

What’s the latest news in this juicy story? Google reports that it has deleted only the personal data it collected in Ireland, Denmark and Austria. For the time being, it’s holding onto the rest.