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Issue #244: March 25, 2012

Several of you have written in to ask about the controversy with Google’s new privacy policy that went into effect on March 1, 2012.  The main points of these questions are “What’s the big deal?” and “Should I be concerned?”  I can tell you what the deal is, but you’ll have to judge for yourself whether to be concerned.

Google Inc. is a multinational corporation with a portfolio that includes a wide array of products and services that range far beyond their namesake search engine.  Google owns and/or operates YouTube, Gmail, Picasa, and dozens of Google-branded services, such as Google Maps, Google Calendar, Google+, Adsense/Adwords, the ubiquitous Google toolbar, and many more.

Privacy advocates have always looked at Google with a wary eye, and this latest controversy arose when Google decided to do away with individual privacy policies for their services and replace them with a policy that is uniform across all Google services.  On the surface, this shouldn’t be a problem, and in fact might actually be viewed as beneficial, since it has the potential to streamline much of people’s online life.  However, in implementing the policy change, Google also declared that the company would now begin to share user account data across all the Google services.  That means your search engine history could be shared with YouTube, or vice-versa.  Your Google+ account data might be shared with Adwords to allow more targeted advertising.  Some of this is not necessarily a bad thing, but nobody really knows how Google uses the vast amount of highly personal information it has access to.   You have to understand that Google collects data on your browsing habits constantly, even when you’re not knowingly using their services.  Many websites, including my own contain embedded Google ads as a way of generating revenue.  Because these ads originate with Google, the displaying site “checks-in” with Google every time it displays a page.  This information can include the IP address of the visitor, the page they’re arriving from, and depending on how they leave the site, their destination page.  Over time, this amounts to a considerable amount of potentially valuable data on people’s browsing habits, although admittedly, not everything can be traced back to an individual.

Another part of the controversy has to do with the Google search engine’s page rankings, meaning the order in which pages are displayed in response to a Google search.  You’ve probably done lots of Google searches.  Did you ever wonder just how Google decides what to put first when a search returns hundreds of thousands, or even millions of hits?  Don’t feel bad – almost nobody outside of Google understands how it works, and that lack of information is part of the controversy, since data that Google harvests could be used (either by Google insiders, or by those outside of the company) to manipulate these rankings for any number of purposes, from simple money-making to attempting to shift the winds of a political race.

One thing that drives the concern is Google’s history of past mistakes where privacy is concerned.  In one of its most public foibles, back in 2010 Google admitted to “accidentally” collecting private data from users of public WiFi networks that were not owned by Google.  This took place via a fleet of specially-equipped vehicles that Google sent around the world as part of its Street View program.  Even Google admitted that they “failed badly” as they apologized for the error.  The scope of this “oopsie” was staggering: Google had gathered over 600 GIGABYTES of personal data from unknowing users in over 30 countries, all without issuing a single disclosure, privacy policy, or giving people a chance to opt-out of collection.  Is it any wonder why some people look at Google with suspicion when it comes to privacy?

Should you be concerned?  Of course; especially if you are prone to activities on the Internet that are, let’s just say, less than legal.  The government can and does use legal power to compel Google to give up information on occasion, and there are some concerns that Google has agreements with such government agencies as the CIA and NSA.  What should you do?  Well, there’s not a lot you can do at this point.  Much of what Google does is controversial for the very reason that it is not covered by any current “cyber laws” on the books.  For now, just be aware that you can, and will be watched while online.

Bonus Web-only Content:

The Google Street View program was and still is, in my opinion, a data collection feat that qualifies as one of the wonders of the modern information world.  It allows you, from any internet connection, anywhere in the world, to see what you would see if you were standing at any spot along literally countless millions of miles of road in multiple countries all over the world.  It’s almost like having super-powers!  You can see around corners, over the horizon, and even to the other side of the world.  Unlike most superheroes, however, you never need to leave the comfort of your chair.

The service started rather modestly, with images in hot spots in major cities around the US.  But in 2008 there was a major push to cover not just major cities, but little ‘burgs and hamlets as well.  To accomplish this feat, Google dispatched a fleet of vehicles with roof-mounted cameras that had multiple lenses for a panoramic view of the area around the vehicle.  The driver followed an assigned route, and the camera automatically snapped pictures every few feet, while and another onboard system used Global Positioning System (GPS) data to geo-tag each image.  We also now know, as mentioned in today’s issue of I.G.T.M. that at least some of these vehicles were equipped with WiFi-sniffing gear, which geolocated countless thousands of WiFi accounts around the globe.  The vehicles have matured beyond cars in recent years, to trikes, snowmobiles and more.  Click here to check out a Google page explaining the technology.

Image of one of Google Street View's mapping vehicles

One of Google's mapping vehicles

When you begin taking that large of a number of pictures over that large of an area, you’re bound to capture some cool, tragic, funny, and questionable images.  In the interest of satisfying the voyeuristic tendancies of you Geeks, I did a little digging, and came up with the following link which I love for the sheer brilliance of the ecclectic nature of the pictures it contains.  It is named after the design of the Google cameras.

For even more, search Google for “Funny Google Street View Images”.

Until next week – good luck and happy computing!

– Geek

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