On Google’s Terms, A Panopticon Matures

Google's new networkGoogle recently announced a change in how it collects information from search and online activity conducted through Google platforms and proprietary services like Youtube. While Google long collected IP addresses as a proxy for location, and also used cookies to identify return visitors, the search giant is going a big step further now: it will begin to marshal data from users’ activity data from across all of its services and then will attach it to a user account. All the better to know you and serve you ads. And so much more!

Google logoThese changes have put online privacy on the front burner here at Better Bike. It’s not just site cookies and Gmail ads that raise a red flag; what has us alarmed is the coordination of the many tools at Google’s disposal – from cookies to tracking pixels, link trackers to hardware identifiers – to know us as best it can. All the better to generate new revenue streams, presumably. But that’s the least of our concerns.

And it’s not about the dissemination of data per se. Google says that it won’t sell personal information or share it without permission. We believe them. Why would they want to? Our data is more valuable within the Googleplex than outside. It’s what they want to do with all of it: to mix it and match it and generate personally-identifiable profiles. They simply want to know us better.

Now, some folks may remain sanguine. “Knowing me better means that I’ll see ads that I care about.” And yes, that’s long been the genius behind Google’s search. But Google is going farther now; it wants to remind us of that meeting that somebody mentioned in an email message. Or to show me ads for a new listing service if I’ve corresponded with a divorce attorney. Or simply to return search results based on what my Google+ circle says about politics or whatever. Even if none of them have made that conversation public. Merely using Google services after March 1st is their consent to share it.

Google policy change textNo matter what you call this – Orwell’s Big Brother or DARPA’s Total Information Awareness or Google’s ‘relevant search’ – when you throw into Google’s AI algorithms all of your data, contacts, and online activities, you extend it’s reach into every sphere of your life, and that reach is already vast. It includes YouTube, Blogger, Buzz, Books, Google+, Groups, Mobile/Android, Gmail, Apps suite & Picasa – not to mention Voice and Checkout, two services that neatly bring your offline activities right into your online profile today.

Cause for alarm? We think so. It’s reason enough at least to carefully scrutinize Google’s new policies, terms, and privacy disclosure to know how they will impact you. In all likelihood you’ won’t take a hard look. Did you read the terms & conditions for your bank or wireless contract (<4,000 words), for Twitter (3,000) or Google’s Picasa (2,500), or iTunes (16,000 words/40 pages on an iPad)? The Superior Court of California’s terms run only 800 words! Helpfully Google posted a brief FAQ but don’t let your imagination stop there.

Ask yourself if you understood when putting your data out there in public that it could find a place in a law enforcement database? FBI and NYPD and like-minded organizations access phone location data without subpoena and scrape social networks sites to learn about who we know and what we do. Some point to a growing coziness between the US Government and the search giant – fears about which were heightened when Google street view camera cars captured in volume hardware addresses and  wireless payload data a few years ago. EPIC seeks information about a case where the government leans on social networks to turn over data outside of a company’s terms & conditions.

Some user imagination is what’s required here because terms & conditions generally tell you what kind of data is collected but they don’t imagine for you how it will be used. Imagination is not evenly distributed, of course; Google and Facebook and the like have cornered the market.

Not surprisingly, Google’s new approach has generated considerable interest among privacy advocates like the ACLU and tech observers like Ars not least because online activity tracking and social graphs muddy the distinction between what we choose to share and that which we share unknowingly. An Atlantic Magazine columnist suggests we reexamine the social graph of our relationships with companies like Google and ask, “At what point does Google know more about me than I’m comfortable with?” I would add that we don’t even know what Google knows about us.

I’ll give Google credit for the new disclosures; they’re easy to understand. But they won’t answer that last question. Know that once you sign on, you’ve contractually released Google from upholding the data confidentiality and privacy policies that we accepted only a short time ago. But now that they’ve disclosed, you get to decide. As Google itself says in its introduction to the changes, “This stuff matters.” Despite the casual language, they’re not joking.