Privacy isn't what it was. But even in an always-on, interconnected world, people should have control over conversations, communications and personal information they reasonably expect to remain private. The line between public and private should be clear and bright, and government has an important role in drawing it.
Companies that profit from people's personal information have an obligation to be clear about the information they collect — and what they plan to do with it. Consumers need to be informed of the privacy they are surrendering before they click that "accept" box on any online user agreement. They also need the ability to opt out and for their information to be scrubbed from the site. Government, for its part, must be increasingly active in mandating transparency on privacy policies as well as in policing abuses.
There was a hopeful sign of this last week when Google settled a case that wags nicknamed "Wi-Spy." As Google cars drove down street after street taking photos for Google Maps' Street View, they also intercepted unencrypted signals from millions of wireless networks, potentially capturing whatever data — emails, passwords, personal information — that was in the air as the cars drove by. A regulator in Australia called it "probably the single greatest breach in the history of privacy."
The settlement involved 38 states, including Florida, for Google's collection of data between 2008 and March 2010. Google admitted that violating people's privacy in that way was a mistake.
"In today's highly technological world, consumers face constant threats to their privacy and personal information," Attorney General Pam Bondi said in announcing the settlement. "We must remain vigilant in ensuring that an individual's online communications remain both private and secure." She is exactly right.
While Google will pay only $7 million — just a little more than the company makes in an hour — the settlement is not important because of the money. It's important because a company so powerful its name is a verb has admitted it was wrong and that it invaded people's privacy. It has promised to change its ways. Perhaps.
More to the point is this: The settlement tells the Facebooks, Googles and Amazons of the world — major Internet companies who profit from mining personal data — that as they watch, they are now being watched. And that there are lines they must not cross. As the era of Big Data rolls on, people still have a right to privacy, and it's important for government to protect it.