Google “doing evil” by invisibly observing?

Google is known for it’s internal guiding phrase “Do No Evil”. What I’ve never seen is a strict definition of what “doing evil” really means to the folks at Google. Have you? Should you care? What data is Google looking at when you’re online?

An article in SLATE yesterday entitled, “Google’s Evil Eye” about summed up what I’ve talked about previously (a key post is here and another handful are here, here and here) and all of this should at least make you stop and think about all the Google services you’re using and how much you’re simply handing over to them:

Google’s fingerprints aren’t just on your e-mail. Last week, the Senate held hearings regarding Google’s proposed acquisition of Doubleclick. Google dominates the micro-end of Internet advertising with its text ads. Doubleclick is the leading provider of banner ads, like the one at the top of this page. A combined Googleclick would be a force in Internet advertising—Google makes 99 percent of its profits from ads—and have an awesome ability to track your online behavior. Google will be able to inform advertisers what sites your browser has visited, what ads have been clicked on, what search terms have been used. The company can also get a good idea of your physical location from your computer’s IP address. And that’s just the tip of the data iceberg. If Sony wants to target teenage PlayStation 3 owners in Southern California with a special promotion on flatscreen TVs, who do you think they are going to call?

When I was at Vignette during the dotcom heyday, I recall the Doubleclick controversy in 1999 that showed, for the first time, the unprecedented capability of tracking and measuring. From Wikipedia:

“In 1999, at a cost of US $1.7 billion, DoubleClick merged with the data-collection agency, Abacus Direct, which works with offline catalog companies. This raised fears that the combined company would link anonymous Web-surfing profiles with personally identifiable information (name, address, telephone number, e-mail, address, etc.) collected by Abacus. This merger made waves and was heavily criticized by privacy organizations. Controversy grew when it was discovered that sensitive financial information users entered on a popular Web site that offered financial software was being sent to DoubleClick, which delivered the ads.”

That was over seven years ago which is an eternity in internet time.

Am I paranoid? Yep. Mostly because of the information I don’t have or the things I don’t know are being collected. It’s really, really difficult to make informed, strategic decisions on where to invest my data, attention, time, energy and effort when I can’t analyze or be assured that what I’m doing has some measure of protection and privacy.

I understand that Google deserves to have their own corporate privacy and to not be forced to reveal their strategic and technology tracking secrets. It’s just that they’re giving us all lots and lots of great applications that are open in our browsers, persistent, and thus allowing them to enjoy a laughingly huge window into all of our internet activities and collate a data archive unprecedented in history (you don’t think their nearly $190B market cap is because they’ve got a great search engine, do you?).

Google: Tell us what privacy we’re trading for the use of your various services. Your Terms of Service for all Google services are, for the most part, incredibly vague.

Your perspective on this issue depends on your definition of doing evil and whether or not you trust Google — as well as current and future governmental administrations — to keep our activities and data private and secure. Based on our current Administration’s moves to circumvent the courts, wiretap our conversations and who knows what else, it may take a decade before laws and judicial oversight catch up to determine illegalities in data collection and such things as illegal search and seizures in a digital age. By then we’ll be three or four technology generations down the road and I fear it will be too late to re-capture the privacy we’ve undoubtedly already handed over.

If I could come in to your home and invisibly observe you reading, watching TV, eating and parenting your children, it’s likely I could recommend content, products and services that would make your life better. But you really don’t want me lurking in your home observing you invisibly, do you? Every time you use a Google service (which I do often, by the way) you’re letting them observe just about everything you do online. Think about it.


  1. PXLated on October 11, 2007 at 11:09 am

    “Think about it”…I have, and don’t use the Google apps, prefer desktop apps and storage anyway. And, I wipe most of the cookie files from my browser. No cookies, no tracking, recording, and no sharing or matching the data.
    Am I paranoid, no, and I can see the benefits of pairing the data but I’m not confident enough that Google or the govt. or others you’ve mentioned will respect my privacy or data and “do no evil”.

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About Steve Borsch

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.