Is Google's Spy-Fi About Privacy, or Something More?

11/18/2010 02:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The privacy wagon is back in town, and justifiably irate and alarmed souls are jumping aboard, in protest against Google's spy car as the latest in a seemingly endless stream of high-tech transgressions. Understanding this takes some unpacking.

If you're lucky, you might have encountered a Google spy car -- used to eavesdrop on your Wi-Fi signals. Google uses a variety of makes and models (in some places even bicycles). The spy car spotter should look for a sinister and obvious protruding mast -- usually sticking squarely from the roof -- sporting goofy lenses and antennas. Those interested might want to browse the collection of unfortunate burglars and surprised dogs who have encountered the spy car on its appointed rounds.

Google's spying on Wi-Fi, brought to light when Google admitted it, has it facing investigations both in the United States and overseas, including a new investigation by the US Federal Communications Commission launched this month. The fracas came about because Google's aim was to count and identify Wi-Fi signals the way you might when you open a laptop in a new location and see a list of what networks are available. But Google didn't stop at counting Wi-Fi networks. Instead it apparently tapped some of them, too, capturing what is called "payload data." Not content with watching the signals go by, it saved them. It's even had the guts to claim that it has accidentally been saving them ("Quite simply, it was a mistake," Google says). But Google's interest in your wireless signals is well-founded in its corporate strategy.

Open your smartphone and you may be pleased to find that its mapping application now fixes your location quite accurately. Just a short year or two ago the GPS signals used by these devices were painfully inaccurate -- particularly in the canyons of cities where we tend to want them most. Then came the remarkable insight (from companies like Loki) that when people buy Wi-Fi access points at Radio Shack and install them in their houses, they don't move them around very often, or turn them off. Each Wi-Fi access point, it turns out, has a unique number that it broadcasts continuously in something called a beacon. The beacon, aptly named, flashes out with the regularity of a lighthouse.

Google wants to trawl the streets for Wi-Fi signals because if it can find these beacons and organize them, then the next time you drive by that same beacon it can guess where you are: Your phone in a pinch may use the pattern of Wi-Fi beacons near you as its local aid to navigation. All this works only if, in advance, Google has provided a proper chart.

Domestic Wi-Fi networks are very common -- 86% of all Americans have one (according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project) -- and so they constitute a basis for more effective location-based services, notably, marketing and advertising. Location-based services are ablaze as corporations in many industries seek to turn your smartphone into a sales device.

Back to privacy, which of course in this context merits vigilant attention. "Privacy," however, is not an adequate intellectual container for what's happening with Google's spy cars and with ubiquitous tracking software which, as the Wall Street Journal revealed in an invaluable investigation, is placed on web-surfers' computers routinely by such sites as and...Google.

What's happening as each of these pinprick invasions accumulate and ramify is actually the reconstruction of the greater political economy, into what Robins and Webster decades back called "cybernetic capitalism." Instead of probabilistic forecasts about media use and buying habits, real-time data based on records of individual behavior are increasingly the foundation for feedback into the corporate economy. Where gaps and uncertainties exist new forms of surveillance and tracking are generated. Google spy cars are one such initiative.

The forms of power and social control that are being established aren't captured by the idea that it's merely about the invasion of individual privacy. Why then should the infringement-of-privacy theme demonstrably possess such power to galvanize political opposition and public concern?

One little-noticed factor may pertain to pornography -- with which the Internet is awash. Although it is extremely difficult to measure, by some reports more than 1 in 3 Internet users are seeking adult content. These users may be particularly concerned about revealing their surfing habits.

Google is explicit that its mission is to organize all of the world's information. But much of that information is being created, today, for the first time -- and Google is a big part of that story. The surprise is that Google has been at least partly checked by accusations that it has been reading our email -- since its business for some years has been reading our email. But behind this there are, we have suggested, deeper issues.