I am a privacy advocate. I have been for as long as I can remember. I've written more papers on surveillance as power, the panopticon, plague theory, balancing surveillance power between corporate, government, and social spheres, the panoptic society, cellphone cameras, cookies, the information society, information-databases and the value of information, than I care to account for.
Now I work for a company that specializes in Google Analytics. Go figure.
In the spirit of the Christmas season, and privacy concerns—what with age old threats of panoptic surveillance from the north pole—I figured that I should take a look at how Google watches you, and whether you should care.
1. Google knows where you are!
As anyone with an iPod touch or iPhone knows, Google can tell you where you are, with or without GPS. With GPS, of course, you have more accuracy, but even without it the built in wifi transmitter can connect through local wifi ports, or if you have an iPhone or other Google maps enabled phone, through the telephone towers itself. The system works by comparing the location data from other phones that have GPS connecting through the same towers, and then calculating the location of your phone by comparing this data.
So Google is tracking everyone's GPS location when they are connected to Google maps, and then they are using that data to locate everyone else.
Google approached this topic with the New York Times, trying to explain how the issue is not as scary as it sounds. According to Steve Lee of Google Maps and Mobile, they log everything with the phone ID (or on the computer browser side a cookie), and then compile their databases with anonymous information. Thus anyone with access to Google's servers has no idea who is where, only that people are in general areas making specific queries. They can't even connect this to your Google ID (they use different servers)
2. Google knows where you live!
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I came across this argument a couple days ago: Google indexes pages of all kinds. If your address is connected to your name on the internet (and it probably is) then they have likely, at some point, read it and indexed it. Combine that with Google maps, and even worse, Google street view, and they can peer into your life.
Ok, not really. Actually not at all.
They can peer into your window at the date that the photo was taken, assuming that a) you are in the US, b) you are on a major enough road, and c) you live at ground floor. Of all the people I know in the US. I couldn't see any of their windows from Google Street view.
Some people have been concerned, though, and the issue is debatable. As an amateur photographer I like to believe that photography of public areas is fair game, but this does venture into some fairly grey areas.
Google does database your name and address, and if they wanted to they could put the two together. The thing is, they wouldn't need to. Your address is public information, and is available in dozens of public databases. The phone book is a nice example.
3. Google is watching what you click
According to Google's March 31, 2005 patent application (that is application # 20050071741 if you are interested), they use a combination of cookies, cache, temporary files, and even bookmarks (gathered through Google Desktop and Google Toolbar) to collect information and click through data on sites.
Googles cookies are pretty startling, with an expiry date of 2038, and collecting a wide assortment of data, from searches to IP addresses. However Google is always adamant that their data is kept anonymously, with cookies being used to identify you, so that they don't have to keep that information in their databases.
And the truth is, they do need to keep some personally identifiable information for their services to function, and as they have insisted time and again their data is only kept identifiable in certain circumstances where they need that data, and after 18 months it all goes anonymous anyway. They've also not given any sign that they are abusing that trust.
4. Google is tracking your DNA
This one actually comes from one of my favorite Google conspiracy theorists (who also has a pretty darn good SEO blog):
“23andMe will offer a genetic screening service for $999. The short story is that 23andMe will administer a test (presumably a swab or saliva test) that will take your DNA and screen it. In return you will be told your genetic history including whether you are likely to suffer from a range of diseases or similar life altering events, including heart disease.
So who cares right … well be for you sail off into oblivion know that Google invested 3.9 million dollars in the company in May.“
I'm not sure this is anything to worry about yet. The companies co-founder is the wife of Google's Sergey Brin, who was owed $2.6 million by Google, which this counts against, giving Google a total investment of $1.3 million. Big but not that impressive. Honestly, until Google Genome is announced I'll take this with a grain of salt, and probably even then given Google's policy on identifiable information.
5. Google is watching what you read
Google reader tracks stats. It has been watching what people read, the percentage of a feed that they read, and gathers all kinds of trends.
This means that when people are subscribed to RSS feeds through Google reader that are anti-government, Google knows.
I don't want to be overly “Well, duh!” here, but of course they know, you're sending your feeds to them. This is like being concerned that the credit card companies know you're subscribed to anarchist magazines.
So Google isn't that scary right? Well, I don't know, but not for the reasons above.
Google represents a trend within the information society as a whole. We have become reliant on massive amounts of information and complex information sorting, which requires us to give up information about ourselves. Google fills this niche, and it does so well, and while they hold very little in the way of threatening information, they build tools that could be used, in combination with harmful intent, to massively invade personal privacy.
I don't believe that it is Google we have to worry about, but whomever comes to the information society that with dangerous intent. For with all of this information capable of being recombined and re-purposed, we need to be vigilant of the people who want to know if you've been sleeping, to know if you're awake, to know if youve been bad or good…