There are two kinds of assault on our civil liberties. There are those we know about – like the last government's plans for identity cards, or the omnipresence of CCTV cameras in the high street, which citizens can at least oppose. But there are also the threats about which we remain in the dark, like the secret way in which $200bn search engine Google captured private data.
It is only thanks to investigations by regulators – in seven of the 30 countries where Google Maps has sent camera cars to photograph millions of houses – that we have now discovered that the vehicles were also sucking up information from unencrypted wi-fi transmitters inside private homes. To many, the photographs themselves were intrusion enough, initially showing house number, car registration plates and all manner of embarrassing scenes, from some people naked in their gardens to others emerging from sex shops. But the sweep of internet wireless data is more worrying.
So too is the piecemeal way that the information has been extracted from Google. At first it said it did not gather data. Then it said it was only fragmentary, since each network was only accessed for one-fifth of a second. Finally it admitted that entire emails, URLs and passwords were "inadvertently" captured. In the UK the Information Commissioner is investigating. But even if privacy laws have been breached, Google will face a maximum fine of only £500,000 – which is hardly likely to dent an annual income of £4.5bn.
Regulators in Italy have already instructed Google to mark its cars and give residents several days' notice before it roams their neighbourhoods. But such measures do not address the really serious question of what other kinds of cyber-surveillance Google, or anybody else, might be conducting.
Google says there was an experimental project to obtain details of WiFi hot spots that could help "location based web services" and that the actual collection of data was a mistake.
But it seems that there is little to stop companies from logging any information they can, purely in the event that they later come up with a clever idea for how to make money from it. Greater controls are needed.