NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, May 2012
Is Google Compromising Our Privacy?
By Sandy Berger, CompuKISS

sandy (at) compukiss.com
(click to email author)

Recently Google announced consolidating the privacy policies for all of its services. These include about 60 different services like the popular Google search engine, the Google-owned YouTube video website, Gmail, and the Android operating software for mobile phones. Because of the scope and popularity of these services, this move got the attention of everyone from state and federal representatives to advocacy and security groups. But more than anything else, it left consumers with a throbbing headache as they pondered how this would affect them and if they should be concerned enough to stop using Google services.

Data-protection agencies and lawmakers around the globe requested Google delay this implementation so they could review the new procedure but Google did not comply. The new privacy policy went into effect March 1, 2012.

Although Google states that this new privacy policy is aimed at making Google services easier to use, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that their primary aim is to target users with advertising that is relevant to their interests, making Google's ads more valuable. The aggregation of information from different areas enables Google to target the interests of their users more accurately. For instance, if you search for gardening information with the Google search engine, play videos of how to plant seeds on YouTube, and get brochures of the latest horticultural offerings in Gmail, Burpee and other seed and plant companies may be willing to pay Google more to blanket you with their ads.

If you are interested in gardening you might actually be happy to see ads for gardening tools and seeds, but this is not really the point. The point is that we are putting private information about ourselves in the hands of others. The problem lies in two areas.

First are the unintentional consequences. As we recently saw in the proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation, even acts made with the best intention can backfire creating more harm than good. When you add that to the fact that technology is moving at the speed of light, we are becoming more and more data-dependent, and new ways to manipulate data are being invented every day, it gets a little scary.

Second, and possibly even more disturbing, is that power and money can corrupt even the most honorable people and companies. History tells this story over and over again. Google's informal corporate motto is "Don't be evil." Yet it was recently found that Google was circumventing the users' privacy settings in the Safari web browser. Even though the Safari browser was set to refuse tracking cookies, Google was adding hidden code that allowed it to implement browser cookies from third-party ad sites that Google operates. When this was made public, Google stopped the practice. But, other devious practices could be revealed or be implemented in the future. Believe me, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Although Google's current proposed aggregation of data may be somewhat benign, what it will empower them to do in the future is problematic. With the use of data from mobile devices Google will be able to track our physical locations and actions. With data from our consolidated online profile they may be able to foresee our every move.

If you want a prediction of what this type of unseen tracking can do, check out the movie called "Antitrust." It was produced in the year 2000 when Microsoft was the big, bad, corporate entity. It shows what can happen when a company gets too much power, too much technology, and too much money. When you watch the movie, remember to add ten years of technology to the mix. In the year 2000 they didn't have the mobile technologies and data-tracking capabilities that we have now. If you watch this movie and really ponder how large and powerful Google has become, the throbbing in your head may become a much larger headache.

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