Google: Love It, Fear It

I love Google. I've been critical of Google many times in this space, as have my colleagues, but you should know that I also love Google.
I love Google. I've been critical of Google many times in this space, as have my colleagues, but you should know that I also love Google.

How much do I love it? Well, recently, I was taking a quiz on the Internet that asked me to name four sites I visit every day. And I couldn't come up with four. I could only come up with one: Google.

Even InformationWeek isn't a site I visit every day; every once in a while I like to indulge in a charming, old-fashioned custom called a "weekend," or "holiday," or "vacation."

But, still, even on my days off, I use the Internet, and, when I'm online, I find I need to look stuff up on Google.

Even though I love Google, I'm also afraid of it. In particular, what I worry about is privacy.

Google already stores an enormous amount of data on user searches and its GMail E-mail service. Now, Google Desktop Search raises a whole new level of privacy worries.As described in a feature article by Cyndy Bates Finnie, the latest version of Google Desktop Search has a new feature, Search Across Computers, that looks wonderful for people who routinely use more than one computer. If you have one computer at home, one at your office, and a laptop you take with you on the road, the latest version of Google Desktop Search will let you search across all those computers from any computer you're using. So you can search your office computer while you're sitting at your home computer. Neat, huh?

Well, yeah--but Google Desktop Search does its job by making copies of all the files on any computer that it's indexing, and storing those copies on Google's servers.

So I won't be using Google Desktop Search anytime soon--and if I do decide to use it, I'll switch off the Search Across Computers feature. Gartner issued a report making the same recommendation.

Because, even though I love Google and I trust Google, I don't trust any company enough to know everything there is to know about me.

My colleague Tom Smith disagrees, by the way.

We don't really know what information Google is tracking about us, and what they're doing with it. We can only imagine what a malicious person might do with the information--and that's pretty scary to think about.

Our Internet habits are an image of our entire lives, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, for better or worse, until death does give us that final "The page cannot be displayed" error.

And Google is so pervasive, that our Google habits are an image of everything we do on the Internet.

Here in the 21st Century, we no longer draw a distinction between our online life and real life. Just about everything we do in the real world is reflected online. Want to know the name of the actor who appeared on that TV show? Looking for a recipe for dinner tonight? Looking to see a movie? Shopping for a car? A new job? Feeling drawn to some religion outside the one you currently practice? These days, any of those impulses--from the mundane to the life-altering--drives many of us to sit down at the computer and go to the Internet for information.

The Internet even touches on issues of life and death. I know several people who've been diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions over the past few years--and the very first thing they did, after telling their immediate family members, was fire up their home computers and start looking up information on the Internet. (One of those people was diagnosed so many years ago that, when he did the search, he used the utilities gopher and veronica to do it.)

And that's why Google is scary. Because when we go to the Internet for information, often the very first place we stop is Google. That gives Google a wealth of information about all the details of our lives.

Google promises they won't use the information for evil, and that they will protect our privacy. But what's forcing them to keep that promise? The current upper management of Google seem like great people, but corporations do change management over time, and the next bunch might be a bunch of greedy psychos. They might say, "You know that 'Don't Be Evil' thing? Well, we've kind of changed our minds about that. We've decided 'Be Evil' is catchier."

Google's Privacy Policy is pretty good, but it's unclear to what extent they're actually legally bound by it. And, if Google does decided to aggressively violate its own privacy policies, we can't count on anyone to stop them. Certainly not government; the history of corporate governance over the last decade shows that government oversight is, at best, slow and imperfect. (Just ask anybody who trusted their pension savings to Enron.)

So that's why, even though I use Google aggressively, I don't use everything I could use. I have an account with them that will enable them to personalize search results based on my search history--but, mostly, I stay logged out of that account, because I don't want them keeping track of every search I make, any more than they already can do by knowing my computer's IP address and by storing cookies in my browser.

I have a GMail account, and I use it regularly, because the GMail interface is terrific. But I only use it for mailing lists and newsletters, not for my personal or business mail, because Google stores all your e-mail on its servers, and, even though they're probably not abusing the information today, there's really very little stopping them from abusing that information tomorrow.

What do you think? Do you plan to use the new Google Desktop Search? Do you worry about Google and privacy?

And, on a more playful note: What sites do you visit every day?