October 04, 2005

Google, Privacy, and Masochism


Today Google and Sun Microsystems announced a joint venture, and while their grand plan seems somewhat murky at this point, there is speculation that their goal is to move toward "hosted" versions of applications (such as Sun's StarOffice) that would run largely on remote central servers instead of local users' PCs, theoretically allowing access from any Internet location. This would presumably present formidable competition to Microsoft's own software products.

Whether or not this is actually the Google/Sun target, it's worth taking a moment to review where we stand right now regarding Google in some important respects.

Google keeps records of your searches, and can tie them to other activities via cookies. Google scans the e-mail you send and receive through Gmail. Google collects a variety of information on your other browsing activities through various optional toolbars and services.

Google wants to make copies of copyrighted books without paying for them. Arguments about how they might make "snippets" of such materials available in Google Print aside, the internal R&D value alone of that collection to Google would presumably be immense, and all without sending a dime to the copyright holders.

When CNET ran a story using Google to research data on Google's chief exec, Google reacted like an enraged and petulant child.

Now, with the new Sun Micro deal, if hosted versions of word processing and related applications are developed and deployed by the joint Google and Sun team, Google could quite possibly be tied into your document editing and other Office-like activities if you use such services.

Google refuses to hire a privacy officer (after all, they're the "Trust us -- First do no evil" company, and they're smarter than everyone else about... well... everything, right?)

Google refuses to detail their data retention policies or the extent to which they make that growing corpus of data available to outside entities.

Of course, it's Sun's Scott McNealy who has famously said: "You have no privacy, get over it" and who suggested that consumer privacy is a "red herring" issue.

Let's face it, the writing isn't only on the wall, it's dripping off and collecting in putrid pools on the floor.

"Trust us" is not enough.

Why does Google so strenuously resist at least consulting with the privacy community? What have they got to lose if everything they're doing is on the up and up? (I'm certainly willing to assume that this is currently the case.) Why do they take such a masochistic approach when it might be possible with a relatively few changes to let in the fresh air?

Here's my free advice to Google. Pick up the phone and start talking to folks who quite possibly might have more experience dealing with these issues than you do, and might even be able to help you. I for one would be much happier if I could support Google's efforts rather than having to be concerned every time they announce a new project.

Hell, my number is listed below. I'd be glad to chat. But I won't be holding my breath waiting for their call.

Lauren Weinstein
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800
Co-Founder, PFIR
- People For Internet Responsibility - http://www.pfir.org
Co-Founder, EEPI
- Electronic Entertainment
  Policy Initiative - http://www.eepi.org
Moderator, PRIVACY Forum - https://www.vortex.com
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog: https://lauren.vortex.com

Posted by Lauren at October 4, 2005 04:09 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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