Beginning tomorrow, March 1, 2012, Google will be combining privacy policies across most of their products. This has led to alarmist commentary about how to "erase your history" before this supposedly disastrous, invasive event.
- Here we have PCWORLD telling you how to "take steps to prevent" yourself from "surrendering a lot more personal information to the GooglePlex". They provide tips to "limit what Google can find out about you". For some reason PCWorld thinks Google now magically has the ability to collect more information about you then they previously could by changing privacy policies.
- They also provide helpful information on "how to stay off the grid". They seem to think you can be off the grid while being... on the grid.
- Over here we have the Electronic Frontier Foundation telling you how to delete your history before this event. Essentially they are saying search data is uniquely informational and should not be used during other web interactions. This is an interesting point to consider: we are entering new territory here in that Google owns many properties outside of search. This may not be obvious to the average user and creates unprecedented possibilities of services. Is this a terrible thing? Google already knows about you through search. No new data is being collected and Google's policy states that they do not sell your data to third parties.
- Here CTV suggests Google "will be able to access a user's personal interests, health problems, age and gender with the single policy" as if they are not able to do this already. They already do this! Google already captures this data during your online interaction with Google products. The only development here is that another Google product (for example YouTube) can access your search history and vice versa.
It is clear people are uncomfortable with the concepts of someone collecting and using data about your online activity. But these points of view are misunderstanding both how the Internet works and what exactly everyone's relationship with Google means. Let's examine the second part first.
Google is not spying on you, nor does Google have a motivation to invade your privacy. Google's motivation is purely service oriented. They are attempting to help connect you with what you want. That is the service they are selling you. They would rather show you an ad that is relevant to you than one that is not. They can only do this by storing a history of your preferences. If this idea bothers you then you can log out of Google and avoid using their products.
In fact, Google is utterly transparent about how they view you and what they think you are interested in. If you are signed into Google, you can actually contribute to their understanding of you. When in history has a company ever been so transparent about what they think about you? When have they provided you with this unique ability to participate directly in the relationship? And Google projects like Data Liberation both categorize data collected and allow you to take the data stored about you.
But even if you avoid Google, you cannot expect to have a truly private interaction with the Internet. The Internet is a public space. Essentially every thing you do online is a public event and there is very little you can do about this. Certain companies *have* offered alternatives to Google's search service, like DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo prevent "search leakage" as they call it by preventing websites from seeing referral data and by policy state that they don't save and make use of your historical interactions with their site. This is a good service to offer, but in my opinion they will never be as good at search as Google is for this very same reason. Google's personalized search has much more potential to be helpful to you because it knows about you, what you like, and what you mean when you query. In this sense, if you want to be secretive about something, use DuckDuckGo. But know this: you are still not really private.
The next post will take a step back and look at how the Internet actually works and why I think an expectation of privacy on the Internet is flawed.