At Whom Does Google Ogle?

Google started in a Menlo Park garage not so many moons ago, the dream of a couple of university kids who imagined they could somehow manage to make the wondrous new web easier to explore.

They clearly succeeded and now the company is a multi-billion dollar snowball rolling down a steep powder slope acquiring ever more bulk and brawn as it goes.

Google’s growth pattern is not unlike other major software firms like Microsoft and Adobe. Yet unlike these other companies’ brands, Google’s still rings fresh and young in the public ear. Maybe it’s the cutesy logo or that plain-jane innocence of its web site layout.

Whatever it is, despite its size Google has avoided being perceived of as an evil empire bent on controlling the world. Yet, more than any other software firm, that may be its very mission.

People generally like Google because it gives them things for free. Free internet searches, and good ones at that. Free email, and lots of it. Free calendars, free blogs, free maps, free news, free office software … the list goes on.

What many people don’t understand is that what Google gives away is only free when considered with a traditional financial sensibility. In the new information economy Google’s seeming gifts are more barter items to be exchanged for potentially lucrative booty: your information

Your email. Your documents. Your name, address, phone number, browsing habits, purchasing habits, and travel itineraries. Google stores all of this information in proprietary databases.

And then Google aggregates.

This means they sew your information together into a sort of digital patchwork quilt that depicts you.

They track your email use habits, such as how often you check for new messages and what words you most commonly use.

Then they connect this with your web browsing habits including the search terms you use, the frequency of your visits and your clicking patterns.

If you blog they hook in your thoughts, feelings and life details.

All of this information slowly builds into a detailed description of you and your interests, your personality. And no privacy policy will protect that information you’ve freely permitted Google to generate.

In fact, too many people take too much solace in the simple fact that Google offers a privacy policy.

Consider this snippet from Google’s Gmail privacy policy: “Google’s computers process the information in your messages for various purposes, including … other purposes relating to offering you Gmail.”

In other words, Google has your email and can do with it largely as they please.

Orwell’s classic novel 1984 popularized the concept of Big Brother, an all-seeing, all-knowing entity that controls society and its inhabitants. Ever since then the spectre of Big Brother has loomed over our culture, an ominous warning to beware our personal freedoms and rights.

But what Orwell perhaps misunderstood is that your big brother is also often your best friend, and Google plays both roles well.

We naively sign up for Google’s Gmail account and gleefully let the friendly giant hold our deepest, darkest secrets. When viewed from the perspective of the information economy, it’s like handing your cash over to an investment firm with no plans for a return of any kind.

What’s more, Google is an American-based corporation. It is governed by the so-called US Patriot Act. One of the provisions in this act requires companies like Google to hand over any and all information it holds to the American government upon request. And Google is prevented from informing the information owner of this transfer.

If you’ve been using Google’s online services for things like email and word processing, it’s not unlikely that your proprietary information may one day also be stored on a US government server.

So screw Google’s privacy policy – as Abu Ghraib teaches us, no one has any rights once under American jurisdiction.

Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, recently touted his firm’s legal victory over the US government to protect users’ browsing habits. But he also acknowledged the tremendous threat of the Patriot Act and identified the matter as a “constitutional issue”.

Indeed, Canadian universities are adjusting their research tools away from US sources in deferment to the informational dangers posed by the Patriot Act.

There’s no doubt that, with a market value of $125 billion, Google is a financial powerhouse. But little is known or understood about its potentially greater riches: its amazing storehouse of information.

Until more is revealed about Google’s intentions and plans for that information, I’m steering clear of the giant snowball careening down the hill.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, November 10, 2006.

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One thought on “At Whom Does Google Ogle?

  1. Google is an easy target to hit, but do you really think that they’re alone? This sort of data mining has been going on for countless years with government. The difference is that Google is suspiciously public about their adventures in your personal information. Hence the Do No Evil mantra. Corporations appear less evil when they’re more “transparent”.

    On a side note, during election time, as discussed in my talking to politicians series, I asked each of the candidates about their position on this very issue – protecting Yukoners privacy from US company data mining + homeland security operations.

    The response was the same across the board (except for the NDP, whom I didn’t attend): We can’t do anything about it. We’ve got bigger issues to attend to. Our hands our tied. Who cares?

    In other words, don’t be looking to the Yukon government for protection.

    That said, simply not engaging with Google isn’t going to do it. Your information is everywhere. And it’s too late.

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