Q: “I just read a shocking article which stated that Google recently told a court that users should not expect privacy when using their services, and that if a user wants privacy, they should use another service. I love gmail and YouTube, but I’m scared about a huge corporation knowing so much about me. Should I be wary of using Google products?”
A: Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, once said the following: “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” If we’re talking about privacy, Google is very close to that line.
As I’ve said before, it’s pretty mind-boggling what Google knows about you. If you use gmail, Google tracks and stores every email you send, every search term you look up, every Google chat you participate in, every conversation you have with Google Voice, every appointment you enter into your Google calendar, every YouTube video you watch, and they even track you for up to six months even if you are not logged into Google.
So that’s an amazing amount of information they know about you. It doesn’t matter if you use ad-blocking or private browser features, Google still collects this data about you. Google stores all this information about you in giant databases so they can mine it, target ads with it, and run various algorithms with it.
To see some of the data that Google knows about you, go to Google Dashboard. You might have to google “Google Dashboard” to find it. Google has been pretty quiet about this feature.
One could make the argument that Google only collects this information so giant computers can figure out what ads to serve to you, that it is in effect anonymous since no person is actively looking at your information. And Google has begun to take privacy more seriously over the past few years, even delaying rolling out new products until privacy issues have been addressed.
Your Online Identity, Offline Identity Inherently Connected
But I believe that’s just the very tip of the privacy issues at stake here. Keep in mind that if corporations have this data, it’s eventually going to be made available to governments (if it hasn’t already). Perhaps not on a mass scale, but certainly for individual cases. It wouldn’t be that hard: Google does not encrypt any of the information they store, so locating any particular information about any Google user would be simple.
Secondly, what happens if a court decides that someone’s gmail account might be relevant in a divorce case? Again, finding and collecting every email you sent is incredibly easy.
While Google says that the data they collect on you is not connected to your name, and is thus quasi-anonymous, it’s becoming easier and easier for online researchers to use that supposedly “anonymous” data to find the actual person behind it. From there, it’s not hard to find out your Social Security number and everything about you.
The real danger is not the data that Google knows about you necessarily; it’s combining that information with other sources. Data brokers are companies that compile information such as your age, race, sex, weight, height, marital status, education level, political beliefs, buying habits, household health, vacation dreams, and more. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry.
Combine this with other public records (births, divorces, arrests, speeding tickets, etc.) and you have the ability to know quite literally everything about someone. Probably even more than they know about themselves.
If that doesn’t scare you, consider what will happen in the not-too-distant future when facial recognition technology becomes truly effective, and we have surveillance cameras on every corner. Your smart phone already provides your location information, and courts have recently ruled that this is public information not protected by the Fourth Amendment.
Is this a world that we really want to live in?
The Future of Privacy is in Question
Google is one part of a huge erosion of our privacy due to the data that is now collected about us, both online and offline. We are racing towards a future in which computers will be able to track and store everything that we do, everywhere that we go, and perhaps even everything
Is this what we want?
Because if we don’t decide that our privacy is something that must be protected and valued about using products such as those that Google offers, then this is the world that we are going to get.