The NSA Has Nothing on These Guys…
Thanks to secret documents released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, we know that the U.S. government routinely monitors email messages, chat sessions, voice sessions, what sites we visit, what we buy and on and on...
But when it comes to personal privacy, there's another group out there that makes the NSA look like simpletons.
I speak, of course, about the "Don't Be Evil" company that is Google.
Here's why: If the NSA tracks what you did in the past and are doing now, Google specializes in figuring out what you are going to do.
Like an unwanted crystal ball, Google uses predictive modeling to figure out what you’re thinking and then presents "options" – information, advertising, etc. – that might be of some use or interest to you in some way.
And the more you use their systems, the more accurate the crystal ball gets.
But how exactly do they do it? It starts with one of the most ubiquitous tools out there…
They Read ALL Your Emails
… at least if you use Gmail (or have your regular email address set up on their servers).
According to a legal brief recently filed by Google in response to a lawsuit,
"Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient's assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their emails are processed by the recipient's [email provider] in the course of delivery. Indeed, 'a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.’"
By the way, this particular lawsuit accuses Google of breaking federal and state wiretap laws by "reading" emails to match ads it serves up based on the messages content. This process occurs electronically; no employee actually reads your messages.
But the bottom line is the same. According to the company, you have no expectation of privacy in your email communications.
And not only that... Google also says that anyone who sends email to a Gmail address has no expectation of privacy either. If you choose to interact with their system in any way, whatever you plug into their network can be used any which way they want.
In addition, the company claims (correctly) that its competitors, such as Hotmail, Yahoo, etc., use similar technology to serve up ads to their customers. As a result, users of these services have no expectation of privacy either.
The Legal Justification
Google's legal brief centers on an obscure 35-year-old Supreme Court decision that concluded anyone who turns over any records to any third party has no expectation of privacy under U.S. law. While that decision applied to telephone records, it is supposedly equally relevant to email messages. And, while I profoundly disagree with that decision, Google is probably legally safe to rely on it to support its business model.
And It's Not Just Email Either
- If you use Google Calendar, the system learns about your appointments and will send pertinent information to you in case something might affect it (e.g., traffic delays, weather conditions, etc.).
- If you use Google Maps from a mobile device, your location is constantly being tracked. The system learns where you tend to go most often and eventually will start making pretty informed recommendations about other things you might enjoy doing (restaurant recommendations, for instance).
- If you are logged into any Google account and surf the web, the system monitors and records information about how you surf and where you go (from major news sites to those of a more risqué nature). As well, unless you specifically turn it off, every search you make will be recorded and stored in your account.
- Google's new photo gallery (found in Google Plus) has the ability to automatically go through any photos you upload to the system and, by way of face-recognition technology, bring those of your friends and family to the fore.
- Google’s Android phones now have the ability to determine whether you’re walking, cycling, or driving in a car in real time.
All of these things (and more) allow the company to compile a massive amount of information on you and, to a certain degree, people you communicate with – even if they aren’t part of the network.
And, it's set to get even more invasive. Consider the comments of Chairman Eric Schmidt as published by The Atlantic in October 2010 when addressing his vision of the future:
"We don't need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about."
I don't know about you, but I don’t like the idea of anyone but me knowing what I'm thinking.
Now, to be clear, I don’t personally have anything against Google. It’s a business, and it provides some pretty valuable services if you're willing to hand over an incredible amount of privacy for the privilege.
But, in my mind, it’s simply not worth the cost. While the company itself might promise not to be evil, the same can’t be said of the forces that can compel the company to turn over your personal information at any time, for any reason without your permission.
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