Back in 2009, Google CEO and now Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, already under heavy fire for his company’s strategy to collect, store, and mine every shred of personal data out there, said on CNBC, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
It makes sense. Why worry about surveillance if you haven’t done anything wrong? This, in his unvarnished manner, is what he thinks about privacy. There is none. You don’t need it. You don’t want it. It’s not good for you. It just makes you appear guilty. It’s the philosophy under which police states operate.
Google has no compunction about reading emails of its Gmail users, browsing through user details in its social network services, tracking people throughout their searches, purchases, and reading patterns. It draws conclusions and combines it all with other data into a beautiful whole. For people with Android mobile devices, there is little Google doesn’t know.
But suddenly, Schmidt got all riled up about privacy issues of devices that Google doesn’t control through its software and that can access and record promising details of life: civilian drones. Including the toy-like “everyman” minidrones, such as multi-rotor helicopters. He wants them banned outright. And if they can’t be banned, he wants them regulated. To make his point, he dragged out an unfortunate example of a neighbor with an axe to grind:
“How would you feel if your neighbor went over and bought a commercial observation drone that they can launch from their back yard,” he said. “It just flies over your house all day. How would you feel about it?” He didn’t like that prospect. Not at all. “It’s got to be regulated,” he said, he whose company fights regulations wherever it encounters them. “It’s one thing for governments, who have some legitimacy in what they’re doing, but have other people doing it … It’s not going to happen.”
An unfortunate example because an insidious and at once funny Google moment of this type erupted in a village in France. A guy was urinating in his yard. We know he did; just then a Street View car drove by. Its camera, mounted on a rooftop post, could see over the closed gate and the perimeter enclosure and caught the hapless dude in flagrante delicto.
He didn’t know it at the time. And he didn’t know it when the scene appeared on Street View. His neighbors discovered the photo of him in his yard, relieving himself, face slightly blurred. It was only after he’d become the laughingstock of his village that he learned about it. Sure, in Schmidt’s surveillance-state words, he “shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
So the difference between a Street View car and a drone is one of degrees. One can only capture what’s visible from its elevated equipment; the other can fly. One is an essential part of its business model; the other should be banned? Why his sudden handwringing about privacy when it comes to drones? Especially since Google is plowing a fortune into cars that drive themselves – road-bound drones, so to speak. The next step would be devices that fly. The mapping and control software would by then be on the shelf.
In a couple of years, the FAA will take up the delicate matter of drones used by civilians and companies. Perhaps by then, Google Ventures will fund a company that is developing the latest and greatest unmanned multi-rotor helicopters the size of a briefcase to replace the awkward Street View cars. They’d take pictures of the insides of homes, to show what a neighborhood is really like, beyond the facades. Users would love it. Software will blur the faces of the people inside to guard their “privacy,” very helpful, as the hapless dude in France found out. And then Google will oppose vigorously any regulation that doesn’t suit it. Because Airborne Street View would be the next leap forward for Google – and Schmidt must already be fantasizing about it.