Your Privacy On Google: Don't Panic, Do Think
Alarming news arrived this week about your privacy online. Your Gmail messages, your YouTube viewing habits, the Google Maps directions your Android phone provides and numerous other online activities will get fed into a giant algorithm that shapes the search results you see on Google -- as if one company were seizing control of all those products!
Except that one company already owns all those products. You might expect "don't they already do that?" reactions to Google's announcement Tuesday that as of March 1 it would combine data collected through its separate apps to refine search and other services for Google Account users.
Instead, the Mountain View, Calif., firm is getting pounded for the move, even though Google has been harvesting this data for a long time and said it could merge it at least six years ago. And what will Google's advertising units--or companies marketing through them--know about you after this shift? "Nothing more," wrote Google spokesman Eitan Bencuya. "These policies have not changed."
(Disclosure: I've spoken at a couple of Google events, and it paid me for one.)
But three things do bug me about this revision.
-- 1. Google's foolish refusal to offer an opt-out. It's not as if it lacks the processing power to support one; instead, you can only change some non-obvious settings to limit Google's tracking, log out of your Google Account or close it entirely. But that's not feasible for many of those "hundreds of millions" of users (Bencuya didn't specify further), especially those with Android phones.
I would be stunned if Google doesn't back down, especially since most users would probably ignore any opt-out. Fewer than one in 10 (down from one in seven in 2010) veto Google's "interest-based" ad tracking.
-- 2. The vast reach of Google services. The company deserves credit for its honorable refusal to sell user data, but as it keeps expanding into new markets it can share your info with ever-more Google subsidiaries.
That, however, you can do something about. "Google" is not a synonym for "the Internet"; you can use other services. For example, I blog at WordPress.com instead of Google's Blogger in part because I'd rather spread my business around.
Google's competitors could help too by shipping better alternatives--you know, doing their job. My Google Apps mail account supports synchronized offline access and a custom domain name for free, but I can't pay for that combination at Yahoo or Microsoft.
-- 3. The risk of having such a detailed portrait assembled by any one company. What if a rogue employee snoops on users? What if the Feds get too interested in your data?
(When the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 on Monday that attaching a GPS tracker to a car without a warrant violated the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protections, Justice Sonia Sotomayor astutely wondered [PDF] if it wasn't time to raise the barrier to government inspection of all the data citizens willingly give companies.)
But nothing Google or the government does will change one uncomfortable fact about the Internet: Doing almost anything online requires some faith that strangers will protect your data as it traverses their servers. You don't have to trust Google, but you have to trust someone.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery