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“Big Brother” Google to Impinge on Personal Privacy

Google Policy on Sharing Information is Unethical

By now you have heard that Google has developed a plan to link user data across its email, video, social-networking and other services as it consolidates more than 60 privacy guidelines it had for products into one master privacy policy. In a move criticized by some as a massive invasion of privacy, the changes will piece together information from Gmail to YouTube to the Google Plus social network.

Gizmodo, the technology website, called the new policy the end of Google’s ‘don’t be evil’ motto because it reversed the company’s previous promise to give customers “meaningful and fine-grained choices” over how their personal information was used. I call it eerily Orwellian-like circa 2012, some 28 years after George Orwell’s Big Brother fictional character in his novel 1984 that has entered our collective psyches.

The new policy means that things you could do in relative anonymity today will be explicitly associated with your name, your face, your phone number come March 1. Google might share this information with online service providers. The company has written to users to describe the new policy as creating a “beautifully simple and intuitive” experience on its sites.  You be the judge.

Imagine if you spend an hour signed in to a Google account searching the Web for skateboards and the next time you log into YouTube, you might get recommendations for videos featuring Shaun White, along with ads for his merchandise and the nearest place to buy them. Now imagine this happening with every choice you make.

I believe Google’s announced policy is unethical practice because allowing consumers to opt-out should be a basic tenet of ethical business practices for internet provider with respect to sharing information. Moreover, the company must ensure that the ways it uses data help users without revealing sensitive information.

Lawmakers seem to agree as evidenced by the response to Google’s new policy: "We believe that consumers should have the ability to opt-out of data collection when they are not comfortable with a company's terms of service and that the ability to exercise that choice should be simple and straightforward.” The lawmakers asked Google for details about how the privacy settings could affect people with Android phones, which require users to sign into their Google account.

Lawmakers have previously considered the idea of new privacy legislation to set restrictions on Internet companies to protect consumer information, although no legislation is expected to pass until Google responds to questions raised by members of the House of Representatives by mid-February.

The motivation for Google to establish its sharing policy now is, at least in part, in response to a Federal Trade Commission report Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change that was issued in December 2010. The FTC studied privacy issues and concluded sharing policies should not be prohibited. Having blessed such practices, the FTC has given the green light to companies like Google to establish such data gathering policies.

In its report the FTC points out the two sides of the issue. On the one hand consumers want greater transparency, a simplified process to exercise choice over how their information is collected and used, and to ensure that business take privacy-protective measures as they develop and implement systems.

At the other end are those who believe the government should not restrict the exchange and use of consumer data in order to preserve the substantial consumer benefits made possible through the flow of information. They claim the use of consumer data not only helps to fund a variety of personalized content and services, but also allows businesses to innovate and develop new products and services that offer consumers convenience and cost savings.

To me this is an example of a powerful lobbying group getting its way because its influence vastly exceeds that of those who would protect the public interest.

By now you may be wondering how Google gathers information about you and your habits. Of course there is the personal information you provide. Then there is the information it derives from your use of device-specific use such as search queries. So far, so good but Google also will collect and store information on your daily calendar, telephone numbers you have called, GPS signals sent by a mobile device, and, most troubling, device event information such as crashes, system activity, hardware settings, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your request and referral URL. If you are interested, Google provides a more thorough explanation on its website.

Even scarier to me is how Google might use the information collected. Here are some examples:

  • To offer you tailored content – like giving you more relevant search results and ads.
  • If other users already have your email, or other information that identifies you, Google may show them your publicly visible Google Profile information, such as your name and photo.
  • Google may combine personal information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services – for example to make it easier to share things with people you know.
  • Google may process your personal information on a server located outside the country where you live.
  • Google may collect and process information gathered from GPS signals sent by a mobile device.
  • Google may also use various technologies to determine location, such as sensor data from your device that may, for example, provide information on nearby Wi-Fi access points and cell towers.

I do not think it is a coincidence that Google announced its new policy shortly after reporting its 2011 fourth-quarter earnings results that showed the company’s average revenue per click fell 8 percent from the previous year. Google shares have fallen about 10 percent since the report. What better way to improve these numbers then by establishing a new policy that impinges on personal liberties and choices we might make in order to enhance advertising revenues.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 2, 2012