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Another Pixel Laid in Redrawing Privacy Line

Monday, August 1st, 2011
pixels in pixel war

The privacy war rages daily, this month on the streets and sidewalks of Seoul. On May 3, 2011, South Korean police raided Google Korea’s local offices, taking computer equipment related to Google’s AdMob section. Acting on the behalf of the Korean Communication Commission (KCC), they were collecting evidence to determine whether or not Google’s AdMob service was collecting the location information of local mobile phone users without their consent. Google said it was cooperating fully with police investigation but that it did not break the law. Apple Inc. was also asked to clarify to the KCC in writing whether or not it was collecting the geographical data of iPhone and iPad users.

These events are related to recent information that has come to light about the behavior of iPhone and Android smart phones, which are both equipped with GPS trackers. The iPhone seems to collect and store GPS information without its user’s consent, and Apple was sued by two individuals in the US in late April in order to determine what exactly the iPhones are tracking and what happens to the information. The lawsuit claims that Apple is “secretly recording movements of iPhone and iPad users.”

After this story hit the news, users of other smart phones also wondered whether or not their GPS movement was also being recorded, which eventually led to the KCC inquiring into Google’s AdMob service. AdMob is a service to deliver mobile advertising to smart phone users, and was acquired by Google in the fourth quarter of 2009 for US$750 million. The service delivers mobile ads to both the iPhone and Android platforms.

The Seoul police reported that they were unhappy with the raid, because they felt that they had failed to secure key evidence which was located on a server in the United States. This is the second time this year that the police have visited Google’s offices here. The first time was in January, when the Korean government accused Google of illegally collecting Wi-Fi network data while photographing all the streets in Korea for its Street View service. This is a problem that other governments such as Germany have also had with Google.

Google has also been under attack from other South Korean Internet corporations, who filed complaints with an antitrust watchdog in April claiming that Google was stifling competition in the mobile phone search market in South Korea. To be fair, Daum Korea, one of Google’s competitors in the online search market here, also had its offices raided on the same day amid the same types of accusations.

Privacy Concerns

All of these events share the same theme, which is the concern over privacy. Another privacy-infringing giant, Facebook, was left out of this latest fracas in Seoul, but it can’t be said to be blameless. All told, this is one big world-spanning, head-scratching, unsettling debate that is now going on. Individuals nowadays have to face the fact that the mundane minutiae of their lives – where they go, what they’re thinking about, what they like, and what they buy – is worth money to someone somewhere. And apparently it’s worth big money. Other information such as what you have connected to your Wi-Fi connection, who your friends are, and what type of music you listen to is worth even bigger money. So who gets this money? And who really owns the information?

Just a scant 20 years ago, marketers were still in the Stone Age, relatively speaking. They divided their potential customers into demographics, and they speculated on what these customers might possibly act like and want. They did polls, they conducted studies, and they poured over sales numbers, all in a vain attempt to determine what everybody in their immediate area or in their nation wanted. Then the Internet came along, and with it Google. Google’s users gleefully told it nearly everything about them through the medium of online search, and Google found itself to be the bringer of a marketing renaissance. No longer did marketers have to speculate, extrapolate, and downright guess on gut instinct what the nearest 10 million people wanted. Google could tell you exactly how many people had a passing interest in rubber chickens strong enough to search for them online, or what segments of the population had their minds on the latest episode of a new TV show. Google followed the only choice it could with this in-depth and intimate look at our collective consciousness – it started trying to sell us stuff and used our private details to do so.

Now while it is sometimes convenient for someone to sense what you desire and try to give it to you, it can also get uncomfortable really fast. If a saleswoman in a department store sees you eyeing the latest fashions in gloves and points out something that you love, you might feel thankful. But if that same saleswoman were to follow you around, taking meticulous notes about all your activities day and night in a mad attempt to be ready for you the instant you needed a new pair of gloves, she would have crossed a line. Unfortunately this age of rapid technological progress has heavily blurred the line of appropriate with the line of privacy. Individuals, organizations, governments, and corporations must now struggle to re-draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate privacy intrusions.

This push from the Korean government to redraw the privacy line for its citizens has been lauded by many as a warning to large corporations to stay out of the lives of its citizens. But it has also been criticized by some as a shallow ploy to put pressure on a foreign intruder into the domestic search market; the Korean government would simply rather have local players violating its citizens privacy than international corporations. If the detractors are right, perhaps this is one of the first steps in nations beginning to view their citizens’ privacy as national resources to be exploited for national gain, like oil or forests. Whether or not this happens, the future of privacy will look very different from the privacy of today or of yesterday.

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