Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sometimes, when I'm alone, I Google myself

Ed Felten once said that "privacy is for Google what security is for Microsoft": Basically, it ought to be the highest priority, and failures in this area could destroy the company's image and its users' trust. "It’s high time for Google to figure out that it is one or two privacy disasters away from becoming just another Internet company".

Thing is, though, Google doesn't even have to endanger/violate people's privacy in order to get in trouble. If it just LOOKS like it's endangering/violating people's privacy, its image is hurt badly. This happens often, since so many people have ridiculous and unreasonable expectations of what ought to be kept private, and a very fuzzy understanding of what information goes where and how. Google is in a tough spot: Even if it does things right, it keeps being misunderstood and wrongly criticized by paranoid privacy advocates and by inexperienced/ignorant users.

I was about to start writing a post on the recent subpoena that Google is resisting. And I thought to myself; Hmmm, Google certainly has worried privacy advocates - and still worries some of them - over a huge variety of issues (most of which, incidentally, are blown way out of proportion by privacy advocates and really are not legitimate cause for concern unless you're an idiot, way too paranoid, or careless about how you let other people use your computer). The list I came up with, originally just a way to start talking about the subpoena, is long enough to get a post all for itself:

So let's see, you've got the anti-phishing Firefox extension (that sends information to Google about which sites you visited), the Toolbar (that sends information to Google about what you search for and, possibly, also about which sites you visited), the Desktop Search software (that sends no information to Google at all but LOOKS like it does, thus causing many stupid people to freak out when they see personal emails and Word docs appear among Google websearch results), the Search History service (that keeps track of what you searched, when, and which sites you visited from the ones in the search results... This made many people mad, mostly before these people realized you have to proactively sign up for this service and then turn it on), the Google Phonebook (that does nothing more than connect bits of information about you that you allowed your phone company to publish in a huge book delivered to every doorstep in town), Google Maps (people have actually requested that their addresses NOT be searchable through Google Maps, and that their houses be removed from the satellite pictures... No, seriously, I swear), the Orkut social-networking website (where people post pictures (and other info) publicly and then get all mad that their pictures were stolen by someone else), the different web-browsers' "AutoComplete" function (that remembers the things you searched for on Google and shows a drop-down list of previous search terms that start with the letter you write in the box... This is not a "Google" feature, it's a browser feature, but it happens to reveal to other users of the same computer the fact that you have been searching for odd/inappropriate stuff), the Google Accounts cookie (which keeps you logged in to your Google Account, so if you close a Gmail or Orkut or Google Groups window without first logging out, the next person to use the computer will have access to your Gmail, Orkut, and Groups info/profile/identity), the Google cookie (which supposedly tries to group the searches you do to one individual profile - much like the supermarket savings cards from two posts ago), the Gmail ads (which make it look like someone's reading your email and choosing appropriate ads for it... No, people, it's all automated, no one's reading your email!), the Google Web Accelerator (which blindly and dangerously followed every link it saw, stored webpage info on Google's servers, and could make it look like you were visiting a site under someone else's identity, until it was fixed), the Google search results (that often contain information about you that you think is private, wish were private, or find embarassing and/or inaccurate and/or defamatory), and of course the good ol' Google search engine itself (that might remember what searches were made from what IP addresses and when, and from the computers, using which cookies... It certainly does remember what searches are done, that at least is known, and any site you visit from a Google search results list will know you came from Google and what you searched on Google to find the site. My personal website is visited by people who search for the oddest things).

As I will eventually mention in this blog (if I didn't already in the parenthetical explanations above), almost all these concerns are either 1: caused by a lack of clear understanding of what is private and what is public, 2: caused by worries that the government will know what you do online (not a problem unless you are a criminal), 3: sheer stupidity, or 4: only a problem if you don't know how to properly use a web browser and cookies (and if you are sloppy about deleting things and logging out of sites), which I guess is the same thing as "3": stupid. In any case, you will only worry about any of the things in the previous paragraph if you do not read the Terms of Use and the Privacy Policy of these products...

...except maybe when it comes to finding supposedly defamatory things when you Google your name - a problem that is not Google's fault (or Google's liability), and in fact indicates that Google's search engine is working very well. This "problem" is caused by you being careless about what information about you gets to webmasters - THEY are the ones that publish what appears in Google's search results, THEY are the ones you have to go after. Theoretically, getting in touch with the webmaster will solve the problem of undesired search results on a search for your name, if you do indeed have any right to be mad over the material written about you. More on this in a future post.

...AND, I guess that Web Accelerator bug really was pretty serious, but it got fixed, it looked more serious than it was (you didn't actually have access to other people's online profiles / logins, it just looked like you did), and its potentially destructive link-following (such as following links that said "remove this" or "delete this") was really not too different from regular search-engine spider / crawler indexing, so only websites developed by inept webmasters were damaged (one wonders how those websites survive the crawling / indexing done by search engine spiders / robots...).

But other than that, Google's services offer no cause for worry, privacy-wise, if your expectations of "what is private" are reasonable, and if you are just a tad mindful while doing "private" things on a computer used by other people. Over the next few posts I will go into more detail about why I feel I can safely say this.


PS: The title of this post is just a reference to this hilarious T-shirt, now available as a variety of products (and in the proper Google font) here.

PPS: Coming up next: My reaction to Google's subpoena mess.


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