Google – Soft on Privacy?

    June 15, 2007

There’s been quite a lot of news this week about Google and privacy so I thought I’d break out some of the links from tomorrow’s This Week In SEO post and devote tonight to a post about Google and privacy. I’ll toss in some of my own thoughts as a bonus.

The talk began this past Saturday when Privacy International released a report that ranked Google at the bottom of a list of companies when it comes to privacy. The report claimed Google was “achieving status as an endemic threat to privacy.” Google naturally enough responded with their disappointment with the report, though apparently not to the liking of Privacy International. PI wrote an open letter to Google and accused the search engine of running a smear campaign against them.

On Sunday Danny Sullivan posted on both the perceived smear campaign and the Privacy International report itself. Danny took a detailed look at how Google handles many of the things the report criticized them about and gave his own grade. In the end his conclusion was that Google does well enough on privacy in comparison to the others the PI report investigated.

On Monday the blogosphere was abuzz with talk about the report and Google’s response. Matt Cutts as you’d expect defended Google, though there were some who felt too much of his defense was pointing the finger at other companies like AOL for releasing millions of search queries last summer.

It seemed as though everyone was commenting on the report and both Danny’s and Matt’s posts. Jordan McCollum and Andy Beal each posted to Marketing Pilgrim within a few minutes of each other without realizing the other was posting, which I found humorous. Fortunately for us both wrote good posts.

On Monday night Google explained why they have interest in collecting data and agreed to anonymize the data after 18 months instead of the 18 – 24 month range they had originally planned. Additionally the said they would explore ways to redesign cookies to reduce expiration times.

In a stroke of bad timing, a flaw was discovered in Google video on Tuesday, further raising privacy concerns. Users who posted Google videos to other social network sites were at risk of having their usernames and passwords exposed since the information was send in plaintext over http instead of encrypted over https. And of course more images were found through Google Maps Street View that some would probably prefer not be seen.

All in all it was a bad week for Google in regards to issues of privacy.

My Take

George Orwell was right, albeit 15 or 20 years early in his prediction. Big Brother is watching and will continue to watch. Even more Big Brother will consistently find new ways to watch and watch closer than it can at this moment. Technology has always been a two-edged sword. The same data that’s used to make our lives easier through digital transactions is also collected and stored where it may one day be used in the worst case to steal our identities.

I think most of us would say we want our privacy to be protected. At the same time most of us are willing to give out some of our data if we get enough in return. You’ve probably given plenty of websites information like your email address and credit card number. You’ve probably given some your physical address and even your phone number.

How many toolbars do you have installed now? What part of the day are you logged into something like Gmail? We give up information about ourselves all the time when it makes our lives more convenient.

In an ideal world no data about us would be collected and stored. That isn’t going to happen. Data collection has been going on a lot longer than Google and it will continue long after Google. Technology makes it easier to collect, store, and unfortunately share personal data. As much as I wish it weren’t so it simply isn’t going away.

Why Google though? Why all the backlash against Google? Are they really worse than everyone else. I don’t have my own report on the state of privacy in the search industry nor do I have plans to write one, but over the last year I’ve written more posts on things Google has done to protect our privacy than any other search engine. One of the first posts I ever wrote was about Google’s refusal to hand over search data to the U.S. government. None of the other search engines has ever caught my attention as doing the first thing to protect privacy. Only Google.

Google of course has the means to collect more data about us than any of the other search engines given their market share and properties like DoubleClick. Still I have to question why Google is always held as the poster child for being soft on privacy. My general feeling is I’d sooner trust them with my data than I would trust Microsoft. Does that mean Google does enough to protect privacy? No. I don’t think anyone is doing enough, but they do seem to be doing more than others.

Regardless of what their privacy record is, Google does have a PR problem on its hand when it comes to privacy. I think Andy Beal said it best

You can do all of the analysis you want of the study, pick as many holes in it as you can, bring out your supporters to counter the study’s findings, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. People are starting to get a little freaked out by Google’s pervasiveness and are really starting to get concerned about what it knows. Google needs to fight the perception that it is becoming “big brother”, not the reality, before the perception becomes the reality.

It’s that pervasiveness of Google’s that’s the problem. Google’s dominance puts them in front of us and us in front of them more often than any other company. Their record is irrelevant. It’s the perception of that record that is the issue and the perception is that Google isn’t doing enough.

Sadly I think the issue of privacy is going to get worse before it gets better. And while Google may be unfairly taking more than it’s share of the heat it’s good that the issues are being raised and being discussed. It’s only through open dialog that we’ll be able to find a workable solution.

What’s your take? Are you worried about all the information out there that could be connected back to you? Are you afraid someone with ill intent could possible gain access to your data? Is Google doing enough to protect your privacy? Is anyone doing enough? Do you have any ideas on what might be the best solution to the problem?