With new technologies, Google may become your ‘Big Brother’
Published: Thursday, March 4, 2010
Updated: Thursday, March 4, 2010 23:03
What if I told you there was a country where your entries into a search engine were logged and recorded, your cell phone could be used as a tracking device, and your private e-mails were read on a frequent and consistent basis?
You might assume I was describing communist China or some literary dystopia, but in fact all three of those things are happening to some degree right here in the United States of America.
Now it's not quite as bad as it sounds, but it's pretty close.
Big Brother, in these instances happens to be a private entity, not the government itself.
In theory, the information is collected for perfectly legitimate reasons.
How the information is being used in practice is another story, and a somewhat unnerving one at that, even if you don't wear a tinfoil hat.
One of the major culprits is everyone's favorite Internet behemoth: Google.
Considering finding, cataloging and manipulating information is the tech giant's business, it's hardly surprising there exists significant potential for eavesdropping and other privacy related concerns.
Google's popular e-mail service, Gmail, is often cited as one of the company's best offerings.
It's beautifully designed, fast and gives users essential unlimited storage of their conversations and other online documents – and it's free.
But there are downsides. One is Google computers reads all the messages you send and receive, picks out key words and phrases, and uses that information to help select the ads and results that pop up when you use Google's search function.
Another is Google retains every message, even those deleted by the user on its backup servers forever.
The benign explanation for collecting this data is it facilitates the user experience.
Google reads and retains your e-mails (even the ones you don't want anymore), because it makes your search results more accurate, precise and in theory, more likely to reflect what you actually want to see.
This is also the rationale for recording your "search log," which are the actual words you type into Google when you want it to search the Web.
For a company with the unofficial slogan "Don't be evil," one might imagine Google goes to great lengths to alleviate privacy concerns that arise from collecting that much data about individuals.
Sadly, that's not the case.
Google openly declares in its privacy FAQs that it retain identifying information connected to search logs (such as your IP address and associated cookies) for a minimum of nine months and often longer.
As previously stated, Google retains your Gmail forever.
The company promises not to sell personal data to third party companies, which is nice, but it doesn't alleviate the primary concern for most privacy advocates: the government.
Google's huge data cache is a ripe target for an Orwellian government, and Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt didn't allay any fears when he told CNBC's Maria Bartiromo:
"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place ... the reality is that search engines ... do retain this information for some time ... we are all subject in the U.S. to the Patriot Act, and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities."
Google is not the only corporation that raises privacy concerns. Mobile phone carriers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint all have the technical capacity to track their devices in real time.
Many phones have internal GPS units that can relay locational data.
Even those that don't can be tracked by analyzing the data from the towers used to route calls.
The technology was designed to help direct emergency responders to the location of 9-1-1 calls, but as documented in a recent Newsweek article, the data is increasingly being used by law enforcement and government officials for other purposes.
Some of the data is available without a warrant.
Sprint even maintains a Web site authorized law enforcement can access at any time, but some of it requires the approval of a federal magistrate.
Recently, a group of magistrates, unnerved by reports of potential abuse, began refusing requests for this type of information.
This led to a recent court case, at which a Justice Department lawyer argued that it was "constitutional" to use cellphone data for some other, seemingly sinister, purposes, such as identifying political protestors in the event authorities judge they might incite a riot.
You need not be exceedingly paranoid to feel uncomfortable about the implications such a use suggests.
The word privacy does not appear at all in the U.S. Constitution, and for all the merits of that wonderful document, that may be its greatest flaw.
The other rights we cherish: our ability to speak freely, assemble peaceably and worship as we choose are diminished with out some semblance of privacy.
That so many of us believe so strongly in this right, despite its absence from that most crucial document, speaks volumes about our inherently human desire for privacy.
With technological change comes the increased potential to infringe upon and into our private lives.
While no right is absolute, we must remember the right to privacy is more than just a callous ploy invoked by disgraced celebrities and politicians.
It is an important protection for the citizens of a free society.
We must take care not to let it be stripped away, one application or gadget at a time.