Google: Don’t Be Evil is Bullshit (Even if They Mean It)

Less than a month after I left Facebook behind for reasons including privacy concerns, Google has announced, fairly and for all to see, changes to it’s privacy policy. We are all used to endless and incomprehensible software licenses; to clicking on ‘Agree’ when we don’t even read what we’re agreeing to. You might want to take a minute to look at this move, though.

You Don’t Think Enough About Data Privacy

Google’s privacy policy changes can be summarised: all their various services will share personal data. It seems innocent enough, but perhaps you should take a look at what that means.

The average Google user has handed a lot of personally-identifying information over to Google:

  1. Google Search: Internet search attempts (what you search for, maintained for at least two years)
  2. Google Search: Internet search results (what you actually clicked on)
  3. Google Search: your web presence (any time you are identified on the web)
  4. Gmail: your email (especially ‘personal’ email, which you might go to lengths to not put through a ‘work’ server)
  5. Android: phone records (usage patterns and other meta-data, if nothing else)
  6. Android and Google Latitude: your physical location
  7. Google Maps and Google Navigation: where you are and where you are going
  8. Google+: personal interactions and friendships

So, the average Android user with a Google account has willingly handed over all this information about themselves. And all this data is analysed, correlated, reported on, and synthesized, ostensibly to better target ads for you.

Don’t Be Evil is Bullshit (Even if They Mean It)

Google has been at the forefront of data search, retention, and analysis for more than a decade. Their web search tool, along with a host of other services, are genuinely useful to a lot of people. They are also genuinely useful to Google, law enforcement, and marketing firms. Your Internet searches, combined with targeted web search, email (especially personal email), phone calls, physical location, and social networking, give Google an incredibly detailed idea of who you are. Their stated reason for this is to target ads to you. However, at the same time, they are gathering, collating, and analysing data about you in a way that was impossible before. They are a potential one-stop shop for marketers (which is their explicit aim), as well as US law enforcement and security services. To say nothing of data leaks, either by intrusion, employee mistake, malice, or the activities of a party that claims the data from Google (the US or UK governments, with their amazing data protection record, immediately spring to mind).

According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, if you want privacy, you must be doing something wrong. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” Mr. Schmidt said in a CNBC interview in 2009. Much like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Mr. Schmidt believes in a future without privacy. That he makes millions of dollars from the private details he wants you to reveal is clearly just a coincidence.

What Can You Do?

If you decide to do something right now, you can remove your search history from Google. The EFF has a how-to that is pretty easy to follow. They also have some ideas on protecting your search privacy which you might find interesting.

You might decide that there is too much data being collected about you altogether. It is difficult to avoid in an increasingly interconnected world, but you could ask yourself if you really get much out of social networking and other sites that you willingly give data to. Remember that if you are not paying for a product (or service) you are the product. Servers, power, and Internet connectivity are not free!

There are some people who will argue the damage is done: the genie is out of the bottle. Yes, once something is on the Internet, it will be available probably forever, one way or another. But we can always limit the ability of corporations, malicious individuals, and government entities to gain further information about who we are and what we do. Turn off the flow of information and they may still know something about you, but the picture becomes much less clear.

The most important thing you can do is: think about what you are doing online, understand what is it that you are offering up, and decide if it is worth the service you receive.