Privacy, The Illusion Of

In a recent blog entry, Google announced the production of a 4.5 minute movie about search privacy in Google. Let me quote the presenter, Maile Ohye:

“As you can see, logs don’t contain any truly personal information about you.” – Maile

I strongly suggest you watch the clip and have your own opinion. Below is my own:

What Maile neglects to mention is that Google keeps all the queries you submit together, correlated by your cookie, including the user you use to login to Google, the links you clicked on in search results, any site you visited with a Google ad, every address you mapped, every product you searched, every video you watched, etc. which makes up a nice profile of your behavior online.

If you slip – once – and search for something which is personal – a name of someone you know, your home address in Google maps, a nearby store, your email address – and it has that information in your profile too. If you use a Google account, it doesn’t even matter if you switch computers or expire the cookies.

I use Google a lot, I have a Google account and if you look it up you’ll probably know pretty much most of my interests and generally a lot about me. I am aware of the fact that this is so. It doesn’t stop me from using Google’s services – I like using Google’s services, and I know that one of the things that make them of value to me is the fact that Google knows a lot about me and what I do and where I go and what I care about. I don’t care, because I do not search with the same account, browser, cookie or IP address for things I don’t want Google to know about. How many people know enough about the Internet to take such measures? Not many, I guess.

So back to the clip. The video clip is market-speak (doublespeak? duckspeak?). It is marketing privacy as a differentiator for Google’s services, and portrays Google’s privacy practices as benign. In that sense, it serves its purpose. The problem that I can see is that privacy doesn’t need a lot of marketing. I don’t think you really need to market your privacy practices. The way I see it, the world is made out of 3 kinds of people:

1. Those who don’t care about privacy, they just graze around where the grazing is good, and are pretty much oblivious to such concerns. For these people, if you make an appealing product (not even a good product) and market it properly, and make it cool, they will come. Even if you trample their privacy, they will still come, because they don’t care. Reference: iPod. OMG I’m using a MacBook Pro now. Busted, I guess. People from this group wouldn’t care much, even if you wouldn’t have a privacy policy in place. Google already won them over, making Google a household name. Want to increase your market share here? Add a scroll wheel. Oh wait, that’s so early 2000s. add a touch screen.

2. Those who like their privacy but don’t really know much about privacy or privacy technology. These people are the to an extent conspiracy theorists. “Google keeps my email for good so they must be trying to control my mind! We’re dooooomed! Run away, run away!”. They are, as far as I can tell, a loud but small minority. Some times they’re so loud that it makes people from group #1 look around from their pasture, cock their head to one side, and, well, keep on grazing. Marketing privacy to these people will most likely just compound the conspiracy theories, because you wouldn’t do it unless you have something to hide. These people might just as well use Google’s services and perform some token ceremony to make sure that Google isn’t watching them, like expire their cookies or perhaps even clean their pages with greasemonkey. Oh well. I say to Google – let them be. There’s little you can do about it.

3. These are the people who are aware of the implications of using technology and either come to terms with it, or don’t play. I know some people who don’t play, and I can’t blame them. I personally am less hard-core, perhaps, because I agree to make a lot of my life more open to scrutiny in order to reap the benefits. It’s a risk, a managed risk. If there is some way this might come back to haunt me despite the precautions I’ve taken, well, I guess I’ll know it eventually, and I can only blame myself.

Have a doubleplus good day.

Disclaimer: All of the opinions presented here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any entity I may be affiliated with.

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