Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Comments on Google and Privacy

I wrote this post on my own blog as a follow-up to a previous post about Facebook, Internet advertising, and privacy. I think there’s definitely a political side to these concerns, though, so I wanted to share it with the political blogs too. Your feedback is very welcome!

It’s also my first post here. Hi everyone! Anyway, here goes:

I have a lot of personal affection for Google. They’re a pretty cool company, they have a nice Northern California vibe, they do a lot of good, I like the April Fool’s jokes, I think they’d be a fun place to work, and just yesterday I noticed myself gushing about how awesome is Google Calculator (answer: very awesome). But, as I mentioned in my Facebook post from a few weeks ago, I also have significant reservations about Google that I would like to put in writing. So, please follow me below the fold for more!

As implied in the Facebook post, one major problem I have with Google is that it, like Facebook, makes most of its revenue from advertising (something like 98%) while holding on to unbelieveable amounts of personal data about the people to whom it advertises. In Facebook’s case, the personal data comprise your friends, interests, and brand loyalty, as well every click or message you make related to the above. Google’s information depends on how exactly you use Google. If you want to do anything other than the most basic web search, however, then you need to have a Google account, which is shared across all Google applications. The information Google can associate with your Account includes:

  • a complete history of all your web searches (but only over the last nine months – props to them for that)
  • the complete text of every email you have ever sent or received using Gmail
  • the complete transcripts of all your Gchats
  • your daily schedule if you use Google Calendar
  • every major website you visit (most major sites use Google Analytics to measure traffic, so Google has access to all that information as well)
  • everything you do on the Internet if you use the defaults on Google Chrome
  • everything you do with your cell phone if you have a phone with Android
  • your medical records if you use Google Health

As you can see, if you stay signed into a single Google Account, the company can amass a pretty amazing amount of information about you. In my opinion, this information is safer against hackers, malicious employees, or stupid corporate decisions, if you trust it to Google than it would be with Facebook, but it’s still by no means secure. Fortunately, unlike Facebook, Google turns a profit, so they can afford to sacrifice some potential revenue in favor of user protection if necessary. Finally, they do have that awesome “don’t be evil” corporate motto, and I do take them at their word there: Google really does seem to be a well-intentioned company that cares about its employees, the environment, and the good of the world in general (with a few unfortunate exceptions).

So, we can assume Google isn’t just nosy, and therefore that they must have some reason for wanting all this information about you; after all, there’s no obvious reason Google Earth should require your Google Account information before it can download the satellite images you request, or that Google needs to link your email address to the last nine months of searches you made. The reason should be pretty obvious: information is power, and power leads to profit. In this case, the information Google collects allows them to learn more about you so they can improve the persuasiveness of their targeted advertising, which is essentially their only source of revenue. If targeted advertising ever becomes less lucrative, Google is going to face some pretty powerful incentives to start extracting as much profit as they can from this mountain of personal information (including, I can’t resist mentioning, some “sensitive information“). I’ve thought a bit about how they could do this, including selling it to unscrupulous third-parties or creating detailed psychological profiles of their users and selling those instead, but the specifics aren’t really the point.

The point is that, regardless of how it eventually manifests itself, the incentives for Google are really skewed here. I would suggest refraining from using Google’s services much (especially with the same Google Account on all services) until they revise their privacy policy and stop storing all this information about you. But here is a situation where we, the ordinary people of the Internet, can actually organize to change the incentives for Google and force them to seriously respect our privacy. Lawrence Lessig, for example, seems to me to be a good force for this sort of organizing, and of course the lefty blogs could really be a force here if they wanted to.

Just one more point I really need to mention. While the unofficial motto is “don’t be evil”, the official objective of Google is nearly as famous, and much more portentous: “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. This sounds really wonderful, and in many ways it is, but it’s not a value-neutral statement. Information is power, so democratizing information is in fact democratizing the world, which is something I generally support. But real democracies inevitably contain some pretty serious inequalities, and combining these inequalities with democratizing too much information can lead to some pretty awful outcomes.

A famous example is the idea of the Panopticon, the creepiness of which is dramatized most effectively for me by the one-way TV screens in 1984. If all the world’s information is successfully indexed, but any inequalities exist in access to this information, then the panopticon becomes possible. Anyway, while there is centuries of thought about privacy and power and access to information, it’s not clear to me that Google’s mission is very well thought-out, beyond a “wouldn’t that be cool” fantasy of some graduate students. So instead of treating Google with the techno-utopian joy we would use for, say, the invention of a flying car, I submit that we should look at today’s Google more like the first mushroom cloud heralding the potential start of a new Age.


  1. spacemanspiff

    I really enjoyed this diary and some of your other stuff is superb.

    Hope I get the chance to read and learn some more from you.


  2. Michelle

    Welcome to the Moose!  Great to have you around…

    Like many others I suppose, I ignore privacy policies because honestly, it’s hard for a tiny person to argue against a monolith like google.  But I am disconcerted at the amount of information that they collect and store.  While I ceased with the parade of horribles in my mind, I’d like to think that google will be somewhat limited in the atrocities they could do to all of us, either by government intervention or by collective unhappy consumers.

    But certainly as corporations have gotten bigger and technology has gotten better at collecting and keeping personal information, we certainly need government regulatory agencies protecting us.  I would never use Google Health.  I am scared now thinking about what insurance companies collect from us and how they will use it against us one day…genetic testing parade of horribles…oy vey.

  3. I think the panopticon image is perfect (you’ve read Foucault on this I guess). But you manage to frame the problems without being complacent, or completely alarmist. I think this is an acute and insightful summary

    Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. This sounds really wonderful, and in many ways it is, but it’s not a value-neutral statement. Information is power, so democratizing information is in fact democratizing the world, which is something I generally support. But real democracies inevitably contain some pretty serious inequalities, and combining these inequalities with democratizing too much information can lead to some pretty awful outcomes

    I too trust Google more than Facebook, but all monopolies of power lead to corruption of that power. The good thing is, as the tanking at Microsoft shows, this is a very competitive area, and companies rise and fall all the time. I’m going back to Mozilla thanks to this piece.

    The only thought I had is how are the security services accessing and using this data. As the whistleblower on Olbermann recently revealed, it is the NSA we should be worried about too.  

  4. not stay logged in to a google account unless you are using one of their services. I don’t use the google toolbar or any of their other full-time services. I log into gmail and then log out when finished. I do the same with google analytics. If you aren’t logged into your google account then all they are recording is your ip address. Of course, this could be cross-referenced with those accounts if they wished.

    Google isn’t the only one who is collecting information. The move to digital cable by the cable companies has created another opportunity to collect consumer data. The cable companies can now track the viewing habits of every customer. They know what you watch and when you watch it. They could always do that with on-demand shows, but now they can do it for every hour of every day.

    Add all this together with using debit and credit cards, electronic health records, tracking cookies, nsa oversight, digital phone records from cell phones, etc… and you have no privacy left. We really do  need a new consumer privacy act.

  5. Kysen

    but I am rather paranoid about teh intertubes. I have just always made the assumption that anything and everything I say or post online is out there for anyone and everyone to see.

    So, while the extent to which information is culled by Google is perhaps a bit ‘shocking’ to see itemized…I’ve always assumed that they (and every other site that I have had contact with) collected info on me. I am just cautious as to what info I put out there.

    I agree with the commentor(s) from above….all it takes is for Google to release something deemed ‘private’ by the public for their to be a tremendous backlash. And, logical or no…rational or no…I have always ‘liked’ and ‘trusted’ Google more than most large companies. Perhaps it is naive of me…but, heh..a good sense of humor goes a long way with me.  🙂

    Welcome to the Moose, Michael!

  6. Elch

    A decade ago you probably would have been called ‘a geek’ if your real name was found on some search engine. Today you are ‘a geek’ if you can make it not be found on the net!

    In fact there are possibilities to protect yourself from data mining if the technology is well understood. However, in most cases this is all about human behaviour (‘layer 8 issue’ for the geeks with us).

    Google is successful because all their applications are easy to use, always easier than those by the competition. The human being prefers ease of use at the cost of privacy. In my opinion this can only be addressed by awareness, such as this great diary.

    A good friend of mine is a developer at Google and when he once saw me using my Google Login, he told me better not to do it.

    Other than that, Richard Wagner rulez. 🙂

  7. fogiv

    everything you do with your cell phone if you have a phone with Android

    What if my phone actually is an android?  Less like Data form Star Trek – TNG and more like Pris (Daryl Hannah) in Blade Runner.  What I do with my android is private!

    Seriously, though:  great diary and welcome to the Moose.  I’ve long suspected that Google (and the like) were up to such things, but the scope/scale is more than a little staggering.  Maybe I’ve just been to passive in thinking about it; turning a blind eye while enjoying and extensively using “free” apps like Google Earth.  Gad, I love Google Earth — it helps me immeasurably with work, but I digress.  We definitely need some balance here, and some modern consumer privacy protection legislation ought be enacted.  Is there an advocacy group for this sort of thing?

    More pop-culture:  anyone remember that movie Minority Report?  It’s based (loosely) on the (much better) Phillip Dick book.  Anyhoo, in the movie characters are recogized virtually everywhere by omnipresent retinal scan, and micro-targeted by virtual/holographic pop-up advertising.  

    Damn, not so far from that now, are we?

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