A Network World editor who normally writes about Microsoft has chronicled several alarming tales which describe how the Monster of Mountain View is taking its data-mining to the next level. Here’s story one:
For a few months, whenever this editor used Google search, Google would show him relevant tweets from people he was following on his Twitter account within search results. But, he never actually gave Google his Twitter handle. In fact, it would always ask him to verify his Twitter name even as it served up the Tweets. Google was guessing about his Twitter identity, probably using the fact that the editor gave Twitter his Gmail account. Google saw messages from that Twitter account coming into his Gmail, correlated the two and started serving up unasked for Tweets. Yes, Google is correlating your Google profile with data from public social networks. You must opt out if you want it to cut it out.
As for my story, a couple of weeks ago I fired up my Gmail and noticed my name with a little “plus” sign at the top. It turns out it was a Google+ account and Google had filled what it could of my public profile with the data I had shared when I tried out Buzz. This was not my full real name but the name I had been using with all my Google accounts. No one I knew was on Plus yet, so a few days later, I returned, found a few co-workers and tried to post a “hello world” status update. I got an error message. The message didn’t tell me I was banned … it simply said that it couldn’t post my status at this time and I should try again later. Which I did, several times … to the same effect.
After trying everything I could think of, I thought Plus was either ridiculously hard to use or just plain broken (when in truth, the answer was neither, as my account had been suspended).
A few days later, when it still wasn’t fixed, I tried to update my profile and when I hit save, I was finally told what the problem was. It didn’t like my name. I was told the account was being investigated for possible violations for Google’s profile policies.
So I posted a photo. I was horrified to discover that although I had set the privacy settings on my photos to default to be visible only to specific circles, the photo was marked as publicly visible. No amount of searching or clicking would get Google to declare that photo not public. I was even more horrified to discover that the photo somehow geolocated itself to the exact location it was taken … which is amazingly creepy as it was taken on a trail in a state park on the iPhone of a friend and sent as a text to my Android phone.
What Julie (the author of the above stories) calls “watching” or “correlating”, we call data-mining. Data-mining is the harmful, invasive activity that underpins pretty much Google’s entire business model. Data-mining means stitching together publicly-available information about people with information that people have volunteered to either Google or its partners at some point to create nearly complete profiles. The commercial purpose of the profiles is to make it possible to serve up behavioral advertising.
Google believes that by destroying the privacy of billions of people, it can reap more than a tidy profit. Its settings to allow people to opt out are just a sop to pacify people who would be otherwise critical of the company.
Google knows it doesn’t have any chance of mollifying its real critics. But right now, it’s not too concerned about this since it has more (deluded) fans than critics.
As long as Google can get away with quietly encroaching upon people’s privacy and making loss of privacy the new norm, it will.
Google chairman Eric Schmidt has already admitted that the Monster of Mountain View has developed facial recognition technology it hasn’t released because it is too creepy. But of course, that research hasn’t been destroyed. It’s still there. Google could start putting this technology into its Picasa offering anytime it wanted – or create new offerings that use it. It’s likely only a matter of time before that happens.