Langa Letter: Google's New Tools: Proceed With Caution - InformationWeek
Software // Information Management
10:43 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Langa Letter: Google's New Tools: Proceed With Caution

Before you embrace all of Google's new technologies, consider the privacy implications. Google's stuff is great, Fred Langa says, but don't get carried away with the novelty of it all.

All Your Data Are Belong To Us
Google's newer services only increase the potential for harm. For example, the brand-new "My Search History" service keeps a record of all your past Google searches. The benefit to you, the user, is that you can easily zero in on a past, successfully refined or complex search without having to recreate it from scratch.

But the downside is that Google can retain a full record of every search you've done on Google. And because "My Search History" requires a login, that information isn't anonymous. Rather, it's tied and trackable to a specific user--you. This isn't just a matter of potential embarrassment if you might occasionally search for a "naughty" topic or site. But in a business environment, it creates a major potential liability--persistent records of what a company's employees have been looking for--that exists external to the company, beyond the company's control. Patent searches, legal records, human-resource matters, contract-negotiation items, and, yes, searches of "naughty" sites... the records of it all sit on a Google server, under Google's control.

There are similar risks in some of the other services, including Gmail. Mail residing on the Google servers also is ultimately under their control, not yours or your company's. This may be fine for "throwaway" kinds of E-mail, but with a gigabyte of storage, Gmail is designed for the opposite: Long-term E-mail retention and use. In fact, the whole idea is that you move the bulk of your E-mail to Gmail so it can sort, index, and categorize it for you, making it easier for you to manage the information in your E-mail. The benefit to you is ease of access and better use of the information buried in your E-mails.

What Google gets is the ability to serve you targeted advertising based on the content of your E-mail, as parsed by the Google indexing bots. Google says--and I believe--that this is done without human intervention; and that private information in your mail isn't delivered to third parties; and that only anonymized and aggregated statistics are delivered to advertisers. In that, it's something like the paid ads you see in general Google searches, which you can access more or less anonymously.

Logins Mean You Lose Anonymity
But the more refined Google services, including Gmail, do require you to create a personal login with a password. Google isn't prying, per se: For all these services to work, there has to be a persistent data store for each user; and Google, of necessity, has to know who you are so it can let you access the data it's stored, sorted, indexed, and categorized for you. But that also means that Google can know or infer a tremendous amount about you, specifically: your personal interests (via Search History and Groups); your contacts and everything you ever discuss with them (via Gmail); where you travel to (via Maps and Ride Finder); what you buy (via Froogle); and much, much more.

And once your data is in their system, it may be virtually impossible to get out. For example, say you get a sensitive E-mail on your Gmail account. You decide it should not be kept long-term, so you delete it. But what if the Google bots have already digested the contents? What if the Google servers have already been backed up? Deleting the mail now will have no effect on indexes already built or backups already made. It's out of your control, simple as that.

For now, I believe that Google is being forthright in its assertions of maintaining user privacy; and I believe Google has no plans to abuse the enormous quantity of personal data it's collecting.

But the potential for abuse is there; the kind of information Google is gathering is a marketer's dream, and Google will inevitably come under pressure--in the form of huge potential profits--to mine that data. There is absolutely no technological barrier to Google doing so. All that stands in the way is Google's corporate policy, which may change over time.

And, profit motives aside, in this age of the "Patriot Act," where E-mail records can be requisitioned by a government agency without a warrant, and without any judicial oversight whatsoever, having a treasure trove of personal information in Google's servers might pose an irresistible attraction for privacy invasions and abuses of power.

Again, I actually think Google itself is a pretty decent company, and I believe their intentions are good. But it still makes me uneasy to have too much personal data in the hands of any external agent, no matter how benign it may currently be.

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