Does Google know too much about you?

You could argue that Google is fundamentally reluctant to respect privacy in preference of innovation
  • (PC World (US online))
  • — 11 July, 2009 05:22

Do you trust Google? If you use its multitude of online services on a daily basis you might, but is that assumption wise? For some, Google is a wonderful company with a broad selection of useful online tools that make life easier, but for others Google is a looming, unregulated monster just waiting for the moment to drop the 'don't' from the company's unofficial motto, "Don't be evil."

Recently, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, WNYC talk show host Brian Lehrer asked Google CEO Eric Schmidt if Google's constantly growing importance to users in the United States and around the world meant that Google needed to be regulated as a utility by the Federal Government. The surprise wasn't in Schmidt's response (which was "no"), but the fact that everyone in the room laughed at Lehrer's suggestion.

But is it that funny? Google tracks your online behavior to deliver relevant advertising; the company inadvertently controls a large amount of what you see online through its search results; it's amassing the greatest library since Alexandria; it has a huge share of the online video market; and offers a wide range of services that bring more and more of your daily online habits into its online sphere. Heck, Google has even flirted with offline advertising.

But Google Wants to Do Even More.

Earlier this week, Google announced it's jumping off its own servers and onto your desktop with its own operating system, Chrome OS. The move has prompted sharp reaction from privacy advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research.

Google has often been accused of poor privacy standards, and has been criticized over privacy many times. The search giant's entry into a market largely dominated by Windows has received applause for bringing more competition to the OS market, but a successful operating system could put even more information about your computing behavior into the hands of one company.

How serious could Google's online domination get? You tell me.

Google Has Your Day-to-Day Habits

Many people have a lot of information just sitting there on Google's servers including personal appointments (Calendar), correspondence (Gmail), work and personal documents (Google Docs) and online reading habits (Google Reader).

In 2007, PC World published this startling chart showing the privacy risks for your information. The basic problem was that all your information is just sitting there on Google's servers unencrypted, raising the risk of data loss, theft, or unauthorized access.

Never mind if a Google employee tries to get that information, but what if the government subpoenas Google? The company says it has a good faith belief that disclosure is reasonably necessary to satisfy an "enforceable governmental request" among other situations. Sure, the government could go after you for that same information stored on your own computer, but the feds could also get it from Google without you ever knowing, according to PC World's article "Is Google Too Big?"

Google Has Your Location

Several Google services can let you share with the world, and with Google's servers, where you're located right now. Are these handy tools? You bet. Nevertheless, you're letting a big corporation track where you are at any given moment.

My Location is a Google Maps tool available for mobile and now for desktop customers. This service shows where you are with a little blue dot on Google Maps, which can give you a sense of where you are in unfamiliar territory or provide you with directions to your destination. Google says it doesn't record your location in any way with My Location; however, you still have to send your location information to Google's servers to use the tool.

Latitude is a similar opt-in service to My Location, except it allows you to share locations between friends based on your mobile phone or desktop location. The service has a lot of granular controls to restrict information sharing to specific friends, which makes this a very flexible service. But unless you have told Google not to track you, the company has your most recent location on its servers.

Did you know that Google also ties information about your phone's battery life -- as well as other unspecified data -- to your Google account when you use Latitude? Google probably wants battery life information so it can tweak the Latitude program, but why is it tying that information to your personal Google account, and what is this "other information" Google's collecting about your phone?

Google's Got Your Voice

According to its privacy page on Google's Mobile Privacy page, the company says, "for products and services with voice recognition capabilities, we collect and store a copy of the voice commands you make to the product or service." No doubt Google does this to improve its voice recognition services, but still: Google has a copy of your voice on file.

Google Voice, the company's telephony service, also records your messages and your voicemail for you. That's a great service, and it's great that the company will transcribe your voicemail for you to deliver it via email of SMS.

It should be noted that all of the above services are opt-in, but if you so choose Google can have your voice, your personal voicemail messages, and a transcription of those messages on its servers.

Google's Censoring You (in China)

A controversial issue surrounding Google, and other information gatekeepers, like Yahoo! and Bing, is how they are behaving in China. All of these search engines routinely block access to particular subjects, like Tiananmen Square, at the request of the Chinese government. Of course, if a Chinese citizen can access Google.com they would have the unfettered access they can't enjoy on Google.cn.

The typical argument in favor of Google bowing to Chinese demands is that Google needs to comply in order to do business in the largest emerging market on the planet. But doesn't that logic suggest Google could turn around and do the same thing at the request of any government?

Google Wants Your Desktop with Chrome OS

No one outside of Google has even seen Chrome OS yet, but it's already stirring concern with privacy advocates. That's because Google and its attitude toward privacy has been called into question many times. When Google introduced its Chrome Web browser, the company was criticized for recording your keystrokes in Chrome's search/address bar called the Omnibox, and that was before you even hit the enter key. Sure you could turn this setting off, but shouldn't it have been an opt-in function to begin with? Will Chrome OS be tracking your on- and offline behavior by default as well?

Google Privacy Policies Today

Google does say that your privacy is important to the company, and it has made some steps in this area. Google says it keeps only 18 months of search data, and that data is completely anonymous. The company is also careful to point to its privacy policy for every single Google product on its Web pages. But it's important to note that many of Google's privacy measures were introduced only after public outcry, including a request to make links to its privacy policy more visible.

In fact, you could argue that Google is fundamentally reluctant to respect privacy in preference of innovation. According to a blog post entitled "Another step to protect user privacy," the company said, "Although [anonymizing search server logs] was good for privacy, it was a difficult decision because the routine server log data we collect has always been a critical ingredient of innovation."

That's a fair argument, since a lot can be learned from how people behave on the Web. If you combine a large body of data about user behavior with Google's massive computing power, you can see how Google could get an excellent sense of how to shape its products to meet user needs.

But then again, companies were innovating with focus groups and opt-in monitoring programs for decades and they fared pretty well. Personally, I'd prefer that Google and other online companies stopped tracking my cyber-behavior even if that did mean we'd see less innovation from these companies.

Google has a lot of handy services, but as the company gains more and more information from its users, those users may raise even more questions about how big Google should be allowed to get, and whether the government needs to step in and strictly regulate how Google's overwhelming amount of information is used.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to plug next week's schedule into my Google Calendar, get caught up with my Gmail, catch up on my blog reading with Google Reader and then watch a few of my favorite videos on YouTube.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
Topics: Gmail, censorship, Google, Google Apps, Google Chrome OS, privacy
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