Google and Privacy

Seth Finkelstein of Infothought has been writing articles for the Guardian. His latest discusses a few things to consider about Google and Privacy.

The task is then to prise out any abuses from behind the wall of corporate secrecy. Otherwise, we could end up with an unholy alliance between corporations and governments, where corporations act as privatised spies for governments, while government data retention mandates are used to give corporations an excuse to keep the sort of detailed records they’d want to in any case for market research and sale.

Google has done some very amazing and innovative things. One of the consequences of their success and their practices is that while they attempt to do no evil- and I honestly believe that many, if not most people at Google earnestly do want to practice that philosophy in more than a superficial marketing sense- they can be involved in questionable activities.

Lessig is not the only person who’s talked about privacy, but he does it in a fairly accessible way in Code 2.0. Lessig mentioned three conceptualizations of privacy. One, privacy as freedom from burden of government intrusion. Two, privacy as part of the dignity of being a person. Three, privacy as a check on the powers of the government. While I somewhat disagree with his conclusions, those are all important views to consider.

With Google Toolbar, Google Search, Google Mail, Google Docs, etc., collecting information about users both as a means of revenue with targeted advertising and as part of the search service itself, Google would appear to be an attractive target for governments around the world that would like to get information about citizens of those and other countries. The power of governments is something that should be examined. Looking for information is not something that should be actionable except perhaps in very, very narrow circumstances.

Library circulation records are private for a reason. They *could* be used in other ways. They *could* be used to gather information about users. The could be shared with other groups. They could be used to target users with specific materials, or used in ways that improved user services, which is the ultimate goal of librarians. Many of those choices would harm patron privacy. Some of these things have occurred, with some success, but with a key difference. Privacy always comes first. Libraries have been able to take advantage of cyberspace and the digital environment, but privacy has to be considered in the implementation of those services.

Public libraries in the U.S., unlike Google, are generally not international information corporations. They usually don’t have shareholders that vote down privacy proposals. They don’t have an international presence. They don’t have to examine the different laws in different countries, or directly deal with totalitarian governments. But I believe they do tend to have their priorities in the right place.

As the saying attributed to Cardinal Richelieu demonstrates: Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him.

Google needs to be more than a single point of subpoena.

Google is shortening the amount of times it keeps user records, presumably due to pressure from the European Union. Google was also given the lowest rating of any corporation by Privacy International. CEO Schmidt mentioned that he was extremely sensitive to user trust over the issue. User trust isn’t the only thing he should be sensitive to. Yes, users can move to competitors- but Google needs to be far more proactive than it has been in regards to user privacy if it’s concerned with privacy as a right and protection from government.

Privacy needs to high on the priority scale. It needs to be part of the process from start to finish. It needs to be on everyone’s mind.


  1. Corla said,

    July 13, 2007 @ 6:26 am

    In google toolbar, there is a option “send usage statistics to Google”, if you checked that option, then google collect all the info about your surfing habits. This is a very sensitive issue. Is google have that type rights?

  2. Jarod - Area 51 Mark said,

    August 2, 2007 @ 2:56 am

    It’s an interesting thing Corla brings up now. And the answer is, I think, yes. Otherwise Google would NEVER do that. They are a multi billion dollar company who knows EXACTLY what they are doing. Maybe they even got some kind of privalige from the government to do this. They aren’t called “the big brother of the internet” for nothing!

  3. Area 51 Marketing said,

    August 2, 2007 @ 2:59 am

    I just looked it up. yes! It’s perfectly legal to collect privat einformation if the user, you, agree’s to do this! So you should say no to it.

    Further more there is a whole thing going on about Google collecting private information.

  4. Corla said,

    August 3, 2007 @ 4:46 am

    Yes Jarod ur right.A multi billion dollar company like Google can’t so anything they want. As u said, I also think they got some kind of privalige from the government.

  5. search engine optimi said,

    September 11, 2007 @ 1:44 am

    Google is easily top dog. There have been some pretty scary statements made about Google and the privacy of search requests recently. You may have heard that Google was nominated for a “Big Brother” award. You may also have read that Google knows everything you ever searched for. Should you be frightened?
    Relax. Yes, there are privacy issues to be aware of when you do a search at Google. However, these issues are just as much as a concern for other searches engines you visit, as well. More importantly, the fear that you personally could be tracked isn’t realistic, for the vast majority of users, at least by Google itself.
    Clearly some people are worried about the privacy of their search requests, be it at Google, Yahoo or any other search engine. Google’s taken the most heat over this issue lately, and largely without cause. Nevertheless, a useful thing that the entire search industry might do is to reexamine their privacy policies and consider expanding them to provide more specifics about what exactly happens with search data on a personal basis.
    As for services that do record personal information with searches, I could well see them providing an option to opt-out of this. Or, if they won’t allow an opt-out, they might have to provide better guarantees about how that information is safe-guarded or destroyed over time.

  6. Irfan said,

    September 12, 2007 @ 10:43 am

    If i remember it correctly, Google was told not to hold private data for more then 2 years. But to me, 2 years is still long enough time.
    Google collects all kind of data if you have google toolbar or are using adsense.

  7. OlaK said,

    November 28, 2007 @ 7:14 am

    Just to comment on a previous post, l don’t fully agree, a multi-billion company should not be able to simply do what they want, google have too much power..its simply too much, 20 years ago, they were no where to be found, in 20 years time, would they still have such business/data control?, all corporations, should have enforced measures, l do agree after 2 years plus data should be destroyed…

  8. MBA Programs said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 12:50 am

    Well, the question is how the search engines treat the data these collect from users and it becomes critical when the privacy struggles, which includes both the old issue of consumer protection and the new issue of government surveillance. Take Google as an example, Now everyone knows that Google is so central to the web, no matter whatever attitude it takes, privacy policies has always been under hammer and it is quite true for other search engines as well in particular say MSN or Yahoo!.
    We must not say that Google is evil. What we believe is that Google have some big decisions to make, Call it a class warfare, This Google Watch site comes handy when we need to articulate and publicize the situation at Google; thus encouraging more scrutiny of their operations. Above all, we the people should also play a small but vital part in maintaining the web as an information tool that is more useful for the masses, than it is for the elites.

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