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…
–George Orwell, 1984
— George Orwell, 1984
- 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.
- 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.
- Google retains all data indefinitely. They won’t say how long. Should you be concerned?
- 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.
- Google hires spooks. They hired a cryptologist once…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.