On Sunday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Google's enterprise search hardware is finding its way into U.S. intelligence agencies, which also have turned to Google to power Intellipedia, a Wikipedia of sorts for spies.It should hardly come as a surprise that spy agencies want a bit of that Google magic to help them mine their vast stores of data. What is remarkable is that Google insists that it is strongly committed to protecting user privacy.
Google, and more broadly search engines, have done more to diminish privacy than any technology since the camera. Google makes information available and thus by definition diminishes privacy, which is best defined as the absence of information.
Google insists there's another kind of privacy, the kind where some information is collected: personal information when you register with Google, your IP address when you use Google services, the data and time of Google visits, and so on.
Google's privacy is a privacy of degrees. You have some privacy, but not complete privacy. And even that "some privacy" you have is subject to conditions: If Google gets a subpoena or national security letter, that privacy you had isn't yours anymore.
Real privacy is what you get when you walk into a store and pay cash (pretend for a moment you're not being recorded on a security camera): There's no record of the transaction.
Privacy is binary. Either you have it or you don't. It is anonymity. It is secrecy. Don't accept a watered-down substitute manufactured to make marketing easier.
Privacy can be both good and bad. It allows whistle blowers and human rights activists to expose corruption and abuse without being targeted for reprisal.
At the same time, it allows pedophiles to operate online.
So Google's insistence on semi-privacy is understandable. It reflects the broad social difficulty of acknowledging the need for privacy while also acknowledging the social need to prevent the exploitation of privacy to commit misdeeds.
What Google has, what every site has, is a disclosure policy. Perhaps if Google and other companies admitted as much, we might have a more fruitful discussion about what the absence of privacy really means for Internet users.