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Privacy: Something You Don't Have

(Thu May 20 17:33:29 2010)

Ok, seriously. What is up with Google-bashers?

Yes, Google is a big company. That doesn't make them automatically evil (for that matter, few things make anyone automatically evil). So what, then? Usually, I hear "invasion of privacy" and such, but that's not really it. If your website gets indexed and a picture you didn't want shared is suddenly available for all, well, that's your fault; it's like standing naked in front of a window and then getting upset that someone saw you. Search history, obviously, might be a problem, but it still shouldn't be that big of deal. Sure, they know exactly what you searched for. Then again, so does everyone else; no search engine out there doesn't, apart from the few "anonymized" engines - and even those are less anonymous than you might think.

But, you ask, what about all those context-sensitive Google ads in your email [Gasp!]?
Well, what about it? The only thing that "reads" your email is a computer. It doesn't save information, it just matches keywords and grabs ads that seem to fit. Interestingly enough, every computer between "sender" and "receiver" actually reads your email. They don't save it, either, but they still read it. Every email you get is like a postcard - the postman can read it, the mail sorter can read it, your neighbor can read it (if they access your mail box). If you want secure email, you'll have to encrypt it on your end and decrypt it on the other - or at least zip up your letter and email that file.

Then there is the "worst offender" - Google search. From countless searches worldwide, data can be gleaned that is, at least hypothetically, devastating. "Hypothetically" covers a lot, though. Sure, Google has a lot of data on everyone; if you access Google maps and get directions, then Google knows where you live; if you compare brands online, Google knows what you shop for. If you search for potentially embarrassing statements like "Adult bed-wetting" or "Nude Llamas", Google suddenly knows more about you that anyone would ever want to. And that's the point, really - who cares? While I might search for a birthday present for my wife, and wouldn't want my wife to find out about it, I don't care if anyone else knows. Google is pretty good at keeping secrets. As long as you're not doing anything really, really illegal, no one will really care what you're searching for.

I think the problem comes when people see two things and put them together badly. People know that if someone knows a lot about them they could use that data to hurt them. People also know that companies are only in it for the bottom line dollar; if it makes money, they'll do it. Unfortunately, these two disparate thoughts get mushed together into one pseudo-thought: "Google knows a lot about me, and is willing to make a buck off that information in any way they can!"

This is completely wrong.

While the two individual thoughts may be correct, in some context - Google really is out to make money, as almost all corporations are, and people really could use data to hurt you - Google isn't out to hurt you. They aren't going to email your sordid details to everyone in the world. Why? Because there is no money in it. Sure, they know a lot about you - anyone would if they read your search history. But they aren't going to do anything that intentionally hurts you, because you're a customer. Think of the other search engines - do you trust Yahoo with the same data Google has? How about Microsoft, via Bing?

Which is my next point. Yes, Google has a lot of data about you, personally - but so do a lot of other companies. Even outside the usual "Microsoft knows all the programs you run" and "Facebook apps know all your friends". For instance, your credit card company; they know every single item you've bought with a credit card, the time you bought it, and whether you returned it or not. Your cell phone provider knows your general location 24/7, even more so if you've left the GPS turned on. Even the GPS in your car phones home. Walmart (or any other store) knows your shopping habits, especially if you use checks or a credit card; your Internet provider knows every link you've clicked on (assuming they weren't SSL).

But that's just the easy information, stuff that's built right in. How about side information, stuff that Google could infer from your searches? Movie theaters know your relationship status, because you usually buy two tickets when you have a girlfriend, but one when you're single; your phone company knows who you don't like by who you hang up on. Your cell phone company knows if you go over the speed limit; your credit card company knows when your anniversary is by when you buy flowers.

Life itself is public, and the more we depend on others for anything, the more they will know about us. It's just the way it is. Even 100 years ago, people had that nosy neighbor who knew their every move, or the priest who knew their every sin. It's not new - just more prevalent.

I guess the overarching point is, quit whining about Google (or Facebook, or anyone else for that matter) pointing out intimate details about your life. The best way to keep intimate details out of the limelight is by, well, keeping them out of the limelight. If you really care, you'll unplug from the Internet and never leave your home; otherwise, you're pretty much full of hot air.

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This blag is tagged: Facebook, Google, Privacy, All