Dave Taylor:  I was recently invited to present a talk to the Rocky Mountain Internet Users Group on Google as Big Brother, with obvious reference to George Orwell’s prescient book 1984 and other totalitarian dystopias. The talk was quite interesting – and the research I did beforehand rather troubling – and the 40+ people who attended found it quite informative and thought-provoking. As a result, I am hoping you will also find the minutes of the meeting valuable too…

Introduction (Josh Zapin): "Everyone uses Google about every day, although many don’t use their analytical services. Maps, news, and image search are popular. Does Google have too much market power? What did we do before Google?

"There are some other search engines around that no one uses anymore. The numbers for Google are off the charts. 48.8 percent market share and still growing. There were 2.5 billion Google searches in December 2005, and the amount of searching going on is increasing. Google gets 80 million unique visitors per month and they have $125 billion market capitalization. Is this dangerous?

"Google is a window that doesn’t just look out onto the Internet, but also looks in. Google records societal trends based on what people are looking for. Gmail is very popular, but context-sensitive ads actually read your email. Google Analytics is a neat package that lets you know what’s going on on your website… but is Google using the information it collects from you? Should we be concerned about them becoming a Big Brother?"

Here’s where my talk begins…

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
–George Orwell, 1984

Privacy is a matter of perspective. Different people are concerned about different things. For example, cell phones allow the network to always know where you are. This is useful for sending targeted ads to your cell phone based on your location, like telling you about a nearby restaurant. Imagine if all data were available to everyone. It already seems to be true: random companies seem to know how much money I owe on my mortgage, and I’ve never heard of these companies. Based on information companies have about you, they can target specific ads (and make offers based on what I owe on my mortgage).

I think a big problem is coming. Google is not about searching; it’s about collecting and mining data. Their purpose is to make money because this is a capitalist system. But where are the checks and balances?

Why mine data? Google’s business model is Ads by Google, making up over 90 percent of their revenue. In the old days, you spend your marketing budget putting up billboards and only a tiny fraction of the people it’s exposed to generate a sale. That’s a very bad equation. Google instead charges you a percentage of actual sales, no charge if no one buys. This "performance-based advertising" is new even in just the past two years. Google’s whole business is about getting those ads put in the right place. So data mining is critical to this company’s success.

Google’s market valuation is based entirely on its ability to sell ads, and it’s all about context. When you do a search, you get relevant ads, which is astonishing. Getting that match is critical.

But to create context, you have to have data. For example, you have to know synonyms, common misspellings, jargon, Latin phrases, etc.

Google archives everything. You can’t really delete anything. When data appears on the Internet, they are like a kudzu vine that covers everything almost instantly.

Think about Orwell’s thought police and thought crime, and how history could be revised to suit political needs. Does Google have this power?

Consider the seamy underbelly of Wikipedia. In practice, it’s a great success. It has great content. But historical stuff is more subject to debate. It lets whackos fight it out, so that anyone is writing history on wikipedia. So everything is fluid, and the more we rely on one data source, the more risk there is for manipulation.

"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past."
— George Orwell, 1984

Orwell wrote this knowing nothing about Google. I think that’s pretty amazing.

Who is concerned?

PrivacyInternational.org sponsors the Big Brother Awards. Google was nominated in 2003. Why? Nine reasons:

  1. Google’s Immortal Cookie: Google stores a cookie on your computer used to identify you. What if other sites can look at that cookie? Well, browsers won’t just hand out cookies to anyone…you can’t sniff out other site’s cookies very easily, but Google’s cookie never expires. Lots of sites have followed their lead and establish immortal cookies now. Turn off your computer for 10 years? When you fire it up, Google will still remember you.
    Audience Comment: Firefox has a great cookie manager that lets have some control.

    Trouble is, Microsoft isn’t making it easy to manage your cookies….so the major browsers don’t help you much.
  2. Google records everything it can. Google Zeitgeist shows you the world’s most popular searches. Popular searches are based on saving every single search. It’s a big effort, but they have six zillion linux boxes to do it on. Google knows what news you’re reading. Lots of background stuff going on.
    They also track searches by geographic region. There’s no sense of anonymity anymore; on the Internet, you’re always leaving bread crumbs. You can do some erasing of trails, but at a fundamental level you can’t remove everything. Even old websites that have been long removed are still archived somewhere. Google owns the universe: you can’t control how people find or don’t find your site.

    Search results are algorithm-based, so that can be manipulated. Of course people can exploit the algorithms to their own advantage.
  3. Google retains all data indefinitely. They won’t say how long. Should you be concerned?
  4. Google won’t say why they need this data. But I think they need it to grow their data mine which increases their chances of success. The more data they have, the more stuff they can do with it, the more they can derive from it. They are figuring out relationships between keystrokes and consumer behavior.
  5. Google hires spooks. They hired a cryptologist once…
  6. The Google Toolbar is spyware (like all other toolbars). The toolbar reports your browsing history even if you never visit Google. It even reports automatically refreshing popup ads, showing you visited all of those sites too. This way it can determine what are the most popular pages on the web. It records your address if you map it, and then it knows how far things are from you in your search results. Google knows what browser I’m running, my OS, my IP address (from an IP address you can often know what street someone is on.
    Audience question: What about browser’s that have a built-in search window, like Firefox?

    That’s just a link to ordinary Google search. But even if you turn off your Google Toolbar, it still collects data in the background. People are happy to download toolbars because their cool. Most people have given up worrying about privacy.
  7. Google’s cache copy of website material is illegal because it violates copyright law. This is debatable. Defenders say it’s important enough to allow searching, so it’s ok for Google to store copies of copyrighted material in its database. You can also program your site to tell Google not to archive it. Google tends to favor newer material, but sometimes it finds very old stuff.
  8. Google is not your friend. Google is a company in business to make money. It’s not a public utility, and they have no responsibility to the public. They can choose to kick anyone out of their database. This gives them a remarkable amount of power and control. They can make any company ‘cease to exist’ for any reason, with no recourse, no number to call.
    People get kicked out for trying to exploit the system, which is fine, but those people go and help others "promote" their site, and then innocent people get kicked out. There is no recourse for those people. Google doesn’t tell the reasons they kick people out, so that’s scary.

    Audience Comment: a lot of spammers should be kicked out, but I know people who have been kicked out for no reason at all.

    Google’s motto is not "Do no evil," it’s "Let’s make money for our shareholders."
  9. Google is a privacy time bomb due to Gmail. Gmail does things like extracting addresses from emails so it can offer to map it for you. Google knows I’m getting email from services that have that address. Antispam laws require advertisers to supply addresses, so that’s mostly what Google is feeding on. What happens when I get email from MSN adCenter, the Google competitor? Google knows I joined up with their competitor.
    Google says none of their stuff is personally identifiable, but who knows?

    Interestingly, Gmail doesn’t personally bother me. Perhaps the CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy, was right: "Privacy is dead, deal with it." Maybe it’s just no big deal.

    Audience Comment: a lot of companies collect info from registration cards, etc. and never seem use the data.

    That’s because these companies are brain dead. At least when people give up their privacy, they want to get something back. And it’s very easy to get data from people: you can go after kids on MySpace.com, etc. to get credit card numbers and other sensitive information.
But wait, there’s more!

Google is offering free wi-fi in San Francisco–think of what data they’ll get from it. Imagine if Google goes and buys Verizon and puts their search box on everyone’s phone… There’s Gchat… They are getting into VoIP. They can obviously then record all the phone numbers you dial.

Of course phone numbers and mortgages have always been public records, but now this information is so much easier to get.

Google is also managing people’s websites as a service, and getting access to even more data.

Google and local PC files: People are putting local tools on their PCs, and these little programs could be reporting data back to Google. This blurs the boundary between your local PC and the Internet, which is dangerous.

Google and Chinese Censorship: China hired Google to provide a search engine, but tweaked it to modify search results based on what the Chinese government wants. That’s fine, China can do what it wants. And so can Google. Google’s logic was, if we don’t do it, someone else will. Let’s be in there ready to make things better when there is an opportunity… and collect data on what the Chinese government is filtering.

How about image search in Saudi Arabia? They have to be censored. Should Google do it? What if Google is going along with other censorship rules of any other customer? Maybe your state will want to censor stuff someday. Some say Google shouldn’t have ‘compromised’, but I don’t.

Privacy is a huge continuum, and Google is a really important player.

More here.