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Is Google Killing Internet Privacy?

written by: Aaron R.•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 8/15/2011

It seems like I can't go anywhere without being reminded of Google's shadow over the Internet. Their efforts to gather information and "improve' user experiences are starting to lead to scary results online. Is this something to be concerned about?

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    A Sign That Surely Gathers Retina Scans for Marketing Purposes Just so that we start off on a good foot, I really like Google. Their search engine is still quite good, they really did a lot to help build Internet commerce with Adsense and their series of free products is just great. Google Docs in particular is a bit of a lifesaver for group projects now.

    A lot of other things are leaving a bad mark on the Internet though. It seems like Google has decided to take a lot of liberties with its users' privacy without regard for the negative implications.

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    Stalking for Fun and Profit

    We have plenty of articles on the technical side of Google's collection means, so let me just finish this quickly. Google gathers an absurd amount of information through its networks. Google's popular email service, Gmail, has officially started scanning emails to build better ad profiles for users. This was really just a natural (if extreme) extension of their usual data collection though, since they were already building very big virtual portfolios by tracking your searches and browsing.

    Google's cookies were able to track statistics about what you read, and for how long, in the name of building a better browsing experience. Google used this information to make more money off of ads by building up profiles and offering better targeting. Yes, Google knows that you seriously considered buying dog sunglasses, and it will continue to haunt you with ads.

    Of course, this whole program is opt-out only. Unless you've read this article or others like it, you wouldn't even know just how much they gathered.

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    Why It's Starting to Get Creepy

    This is heavily on my mind after seeing a few discussions of the new Google Ad Preferences service. Instead of openly saying "we want more money and this is an easy way to do it," Google claims that it's all done in order to improve user experiences. And it makes perfect sense. That's why everyone freely lets their cable company spy on them, since they really want good commercials.

    Petty annoyances of corporate speak aside, the latest twist came when they made it possible to view your ad preferences. You may choose to opt-out of the service through this panel, or you can specify your interests to better target your own ads and remove any incorrect interests. Really think about what this means. They have built fairly massive sets of data around their users, and they now are asking us to help them improve it. It's absurd, at least to me.

    To be fair, these aren't at a CIA level. It's fairly easy to royally confuse the program and end up with some genuinely funny interests. And in the interest of fairness, I should mention it is still limited. For a quick example, a fair number of gamers reported that they were listed as being interested in video games, agricultural goods and mining equipment after some searches for titles like Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress. That's about the only reason that I'd recommend checking yours. It can get scary though. Your ad preferences for your account will try to determine things like your age and gender, and it can often do so with decent accuracy. There's the same issue with interests. It seems to be fairly good at noting specific things, like whether you have pets or gravitate toward any specific hobbies.

    But, it's not like we can't trust Google.

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    We Probably Shouldn't Trust Google

    Google is in a bit of a weird spot where they still have a tremendous amount of power, penetration and goodwill. They're a huge but still well liked company. This means that they get a lot of trust, which they haven't particularly earned. I'm not saying anything bad about Google in particular, other than like all organizations, it is run by humans. Humans do really stupid things sometimes. You'll find that reasonable adults can still be convinced to jump off a bridge just because their friend did it and a few guys in nice suits tell them that it will be good for synergy.

    Let's just take a quick look back at Google Buzz. I don't want to dredge up a year old issue, but for a quick summary, they decided to really build their network quickly for their first foray into social networking. In order to make it really easy to find your friends, they just made it so that you were automatically sharing information tied into your account with your contact list... which probably contained a whole bunch of random people you barely knew who sent you a message once. I don't even have to make up a hypothetical. In an incredibly unfortunate case, a blogger had sensitive information about her current address leaked to an abusive ex-boyfriend and a wide range of crazies that were stalking her through her blog, simply because they sent her emails at some point.

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    Is It Getting Scary?

    Google's attitude is probably the most frightening thing. The Google Buzz issue was met with a basic opt-out being offered after a period of time. Gmail's email scanning is being treated as if it was some given. That we should just be happy that it's just a robot.That we should help them build better profiles to serve more relevant ads.

    Google has a ton of profiles built up for the average account user. To be fair, it's not hard to dodge this. When I opened my ad preferences, I found that they had nothing on me. This is because I use NoScript and never had a reason to allow Google's cookies to run on my computer. So, if you want to hide a bit, just get that and be happy.

    It's a bad issue though. Google keeps gathering greater amounts of information on its users. With each push, it lowers the bar for others. If what is effectively the vanguard of the Internet is doing this, it won't take long for every small operator to do the same. Facebook has started and I don't doubt that it will spread to others. Google has some real opportunities to push for greater privacy and anonymity online, but it's unexpectedly, given their "Don't Be Evil" mantra, placing profit over values - a disappointing if not uncommon course for human endeavour.