Washington – A group called Consumer Watchdog, which has almost exclusively focused on regularly criticizing Google, recently undertook an effort to gather and release personal data it collected outside members of Congress’ homes over unsecured wireless networks. In their zeal to point out that this was something Google merely could have done, they have done a disservice to intelligent discussion of serious issues relating to surveillance and privacy. However, perhaps some benefit may be derived from their effort — if it results in a broader Internet privacy discussion.
The information gathered and announced at a news conference today by this group went beyond the type of data Google mistakenly gathered by its street cams. In reality, almost anyone “could have done” similar gathering of information, because so many wireless networks are not adequately secured. But much more worrisome is the fact that everyone with Internet access – wired or wireless- subscribes with an Internet service provider that has massive access to their online activities, transactions, messages and data.
The following statement can be attributed to Computer & Communications Industry Association President & CEO Ed Black:
“What Consumer Watchdog did was not a useful contribution to what could and should be a broader online privacy debate. They detected unsecured WiFi networks that anyone, including neighbors, can pick up. It proves nothing about what, if anything, a person or company like Google might have done to intercept and record data. To follow that same logic, the fact that everyone’s Internet access provider has 24/7 access to ALL of their personal and business online activities, transactions, messages and data proves nothing about what the IAPs are actually doing to intercept, record, use or share that information. Although it is a reason serious discussion of privacy issues is appropriate.
“The Google incident could be useful if it encourages more wireless Internet users to pay more attention to security, and it could be even more helpful if it serves as a wakeup call for Internet users to note the even greater privacy risks they face every day in the wired world. While certain information is vulnerable to viewing by others on an unsecured WiFi network, every website a person visits, what they write in their emails, who they chat with online, and every aspect of their online activity can be known by their Internet Access Provider.
“If Consumer Watchdog really cares about Internet privacy, we would invite them to join us, and others, who have pointed out the much bigger privacy risks from Internet Access Providers, and help discuss how to develop better policies on how private information is being gathered, used and shared.”