Google, Privacy, and YouBy Rich
A lot of my tech friends make fun of me for my minimal use of Google services. They don’t understand why I worry about the information Google collects on me. It isn’t that I don’t use any Google services or tools, but I do minimize my usage and never use them for anything sensitive. Google is not my primary search engine, I don’t use Google Reader (despite the excellent functionality), and I don’t use my Gmail account for anything sensitive. Here’s why:
First, a quote from Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google (the full quote, not just the first part, which many sites used):
If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place, but if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time, and it’s important, for example that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities.
I think this statement is very reasonable. Under current law, you should not have an expectation of privacy from the government if you interact with services that collect information on you, and they have a legal reason and right to investigate you. Maybe we should have more privacy, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.
Where Eric is wrong is that you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. There are many actions all of us perform from day to day that are irrelevant even if we later commit a crime, but could be used against us. Or used against us if we were suspected of something we didn’t commit. Or available to a bored employee.
It isn’t that we shouldn’t be doing things we don’t want others to see, it’s that perhaps we shouldn’t be doing them all in one place, with a provider that tracks and correlates absolutely everything we do in our lives. Google doesn’t have to keep all this information, but since they do it becomes available to anyone with a subpoena (government or otherwise). Here’s a quick review of some of the information potentially available with a single piece of paper signed by a judge… or a curious Google employee:
- All your web searches (Google Search).
- Every website you visit (Google Toolbar & DoubleClick).
- All your email (Gmail).
- All your meetings and events (Google Calendar).
- Your physical location and where you travel (Latitude & geolocation when you perform a search using Google from your location-equipped phone).
- Physical locations you plan on visiting (Google Maps).
- Physical locations of all your contacts (Maps, Talk, & Gmail).
- Your phone calls and voice mails (Google Voice).
- What you read (Search, Toolbar, Reader, & Books)
- Text chats (Talk).
- Real-time location when driving, and where you stop for food/gas/whatever (Maps with turn-by-turn).
- Videos you watch (YouTube).
- News you read (News, Reader).
- Things you buy (Checkout, Search, & Product Search).
- Things you write – public and private (Blogger [including unposted drafts] & Docs).
- Your photos (Picassa, when you upload to the web albums).
- Your online discussions (Groups, Blogger comments).
- Your healthcare records (Health).
- Your smarthome power consumption (PowerMeter).
There’s more, but what else do we care about? Everything you do in a browser, email, or on your phone. It isn’t reading your mind, but unless you stick to paper, it’s as close as we can get. More importantly, Google has the ability to correlate and cross-reference all this data.
There has never before been a time in human history when one single, private entity has collected this much information on a measurable percentage of the world’s population.
Use with caution.