Evil Google: What you don’t know just might hurt you

A common refrain of the uninformed is that I have nothing to hide so therefore I don’t care who peeks through my window. Until the power balance of the country or community changes and when political views are no longer in vogue. Perhaps that minor mistake suddenly becomes a crime or something you didn’t know you even did has become an issue. Those who refuse to think beyond today have no tomorrow.

Google as a company has a policy”You can make money without doing evil“, but the question is with a corner on the search market of the Internet and rolling out a variety of tools is that motto even possible to uphold. In a dictatorial and autocratic world where the span of the Internet crosses international borders can Google even claim to be “nice”.

To make our case that you may be in grave jeopardy up to and including national security consider this. What if the government bound by law not to gather personal information about citizens (Privacy Act 1974 could instead just purchase a large volume of information about citizens. Just such a deal was made by the government to purchase what it could not gather from ChoicePoint. Of course, ChoicePoint is the company that also sold records and personal identification information to Nigerian scam artists. Also, ChoicePoint is not above purportedly acting in an illegal manner as a corporation. We as individuals though think we have nothing to hide. That might be the case if the rest of the world was as ethical as we think we are.

The point of bringing ChoicePoint up is that it aggregates into a data warehouse a huge amount of financial information. You are not asked permission to do this, or asked if you wish it done, but it occurs. Where ChoicePoint does this with financial data that is discrete Google does this with behavior and personal data. Simplistically ChoicePoint gathers data on what you are and Google gathers data on who you are. Your search and web-browsing history defines your behaviors and motives.

First, lets break the anonymity of the Internet myth. Every time you access a web page or get an email you expose an extensive amount of information. The web server logs for example your internet protocol address, the type of browser, where you browsed from to that server, and how long you spend on that server. That is how they also can know the physical location of your computer. If you log into Google and provide your credentials your Internet protocol address is logged with that. So even though you don’t log in to Google they know it is you by drawing a correlation between the Internet Protocol address and the user credentials. Should you move around a lot Google can by inference figure out where you are and even build a picture of your normal habits. Even if you do not use Google the websites you may visit could be using Google Analytics which means you are still being tracked to the same level by Google. Whether or not Google actually does this currently is immaterial. The capability exists.  That capability can be used by law enforcement to convict you of crimes. But, in a fit of privacy minded zeal Google only keeps that information 2 years. Thereby protecting absolutely nothing. Deleting stale data is just a good practice.

Say for instance you aren’t sitting at home in a nice warm Lazy Boy chair and you are a political dissident  in a repressive country. Google can then provide to that repressive government information about your activities. Worse in an age where the Internet is the subjective organ of national and international discourse what if a company had the ability to wipe your ideas out? Say you are that dissident and bowing to pressure of a government the search engine companies wiped you out and removed you from all listings? Just such things are happening not just to Google, but Yahoo also. In other words Google and other search engines can decide who has a voice.

Your friends will say that they do not use the Internet and why should they be concerned. Some people will say that they totally agree that Google is evil and will only use other search engines. To bad. Because Google is using you anyways. With the advent of Google Mail and contextual searching of Google Mail for add sense when you send an email to somebody else Google can get their feral claws into your information anyways. Google would disagree stating that they believe in privacy while at the same time in their own privacy document stating :

“Even if a message has been deleted or an account is no longer active, messages may remain on our backup systems for some limited period of time.”

As mentioned earlier that period of time is 18 to 24 months.  Though others are sure that is a lot longer as the large storage features mean nobody ever deletes anything.

When challenged by this argument the luddites among us will of course say they do not even use GMAIL so therefore they are safe from the minions and Googliers. Of course they are right up until Google actually started taking pictures in our back yards. There is nothing like having our private lives instantiated on the web for the entire world to peruse.  You may have no expectation of privacy, but the recording of events, without your knowledge is a violation of your privacy. An argument that can be fought by different nations from different cultures. Do not worry though. Google was more than willing to violate peoples property rights to impact their privacy rights as they sought to record things they should not have had access too. One aspect is that regardless of how you feel about the technologies privacy aspects these same tools can be used by terrorists to impact national security . Of course when you have a satellite partially purchased by and used to assist the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Of course Google Earth can look down on our back yards behind our fences we erect for privacy to peer into our lives without our knowledge .

So, our mythical friend, who doesn’t use Google search, doesn’t use GMAIL, doesn’t send email to anybody who uses GMAIL, doesn’t browse the web, doesn’t have a house, doesn’t go outside, is not worried about national security, but they should still be worried.

So, if having pictures of you was not enough tracking your every movement in cyber space was not enough to worry you now they can track your every movement in real space too via your new Google Android cell phone. Sure this can be a feature but there are issues with it too. As you will notice the new Google Latitude is built upon those same features of GMAIL and search that are so problematic. What is considered privacy (as stated in the video) is only so strong as the weakest link.  People have expressed concern about the Big Brother State being a governmental intrusion, but in state decline and corporate ascension it just might be those free web services that you have to worry about.

Privacy in general is eroding faster than Google’s patience for old, fat, bald academic bloggers. Dismissing this as paranoia is a sign of the impact Google has had on society. With the expansion of Google into books, scholarly works, copying the Internet, and expanding into content services, where will the expansion and destabilization of intellectual property end?

My aim and goal of this blog post was to attempt to expand the discussion of privacy and show through documented argument (hence all the links) that even the great goodness of Google has clay feet. And, that as users of the Internet and as individuals we need to be aware of the inherent problems of a surveillance society even if it does not come from the government. More importantly when you consider information assurance and security (confidentiality, integrity, and availability) and the standard high volume of reporting on distribute attacks against availability. It becomes harder to show what an attack looks like against confidentiality. This post should show that confidentiality can be easily attacked and in many cases we will even say thank you and think warmly of the people who violated it.

8 comments for “Evil Google: What you don’t know just might hurt you

  1. epearman
    February 5, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    I thought I was at least somewhat aware of privacy concerns and confidentiality as it pertains to the Internet, then I read this article and I was blown away. I wonder how many people have connected the dots with Google? If the points you made in this article just begin to scratch the surface I can’t imagine how deep the hole goes.

  2. syd
    February 6, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    It seems the news and discussion about Google just keeps getting worse (for the consumer and user). Today on slashdot there is a story about the Google updater and Google Earth. It seems that Google is now forcing updates (especially for Mac users). You will find the discussion here (http://groups.google.com/group/google-earth-browser-plugin/browse_thread/thread/146882feca2788c3/de9af1aedf16f7de?#de9af1aedf16f7de).

    I do not currently have Google Earth on my computer and it looks like it is going to stay that way.

  3. jstogdill
    February 6, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    If you haven’t watched Steve Rambam’s talk “privacy is dead”, you should check it out. I saw him at Last Hope in July and it was riveting.

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3079242748023143842

    The key point is “the law of unintended use of data.” It’s not whether or not Google is evil or not, it’s that once that data is there, someone will want to use it for something other than its original intent – like who you associate with etc. etc.

  4. mjrakers
    February 10, 2009 at 12:00 am
  5. AmyAnne
    February 11, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    When people start spouting to me about how they have nothing to hide and never will…they WANT the ease and convience of looking into other people’s backyards…of someday having all medical and financial records electronic and connected…possibly into a chip embedded in their license…I start hearing wa-wa-wa-wa. These people truly are uninformed, uneducated and so much so that they don’t even understand how important it is that they start to get informed and educated.

    Look there are enough conspiracy movies out there. Robots taking over, the government taking over, terrorists from other countries taking over…you name it. You’d think that people would realize if it can’t happen now, it will be possible soon. However you look at it we are putting the pieces together as we speak to make any of the ‘fiction’ scenarios possible yesterday.

    Our freedom, which everyone will rely on consciously or not to keep them safe, may be the very thing that undoes us in the end.

Leave a Reply