Time to put an end to the Google intrusion

Eighty years ago, in a dissenting opinion opposing a Supreme Court decision that supported warrantless wiretapping by federal agents, Justice Louis Brandeis suggested that our nation’s founding fathers sought “to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions, and their sensations.”

Memorably, he then declared, “They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone — the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”

Ever since he wrote them, Brandeis’ words have been invoked by civil liberties activists working to protect Americans’ right to privacy, especially in court cases. But these days, one of the biggest threats to our privacy comes not from the government, but from the private sector, and especially from one company in particular: Mountain View-based Google.

A decade ago, Google was a scrappy startup trying to change the way people search and find information online. Ten years later, it’s a technology behemoth. It dominates search so thoroughly that the word Google has become a verb meaning “to search,” much as Kleenex is a synonym for tissue. It also dominates online advertising (its cash cow). But more recently, it has expanded aggressively into new product categories, to the point where it is competing against all major software companies.

As Google’s products and services have become more ubiquitous, user privacy has become threatened like never before. Consider all the different ways Google can gather information about you: It can log all of your queries from its search engine, collect your credit card number if you buy something using Google Checkout, and index any e-mails, documents or spreadsheets stored on its servers using Gmail or Google Docs.

Google knows your personal phone number if you use an Android phone, like Motorola’s new Droid. It knows your whereabouts if you use Google Latitude or its Mobile Maps application, which now has GPS turn-by-turn directions.

But worst of all, Google has the unparalleled ability to track you as you surf the Web, through Google Adsense and Google Analytics. Millions of Web sites have scripts for either or both embedded in their code, and those scripts are constantly reporting user whereabouts to Google’s servers. Astonishingly, even government Web sites – like the Seattle Public Library’s site – use Google Analytics.

What kind of information do these scripts collect? Here’s a quick sample: your IP address (a unique number associated with your computer or home network by your Internet Service Provider), what browser you’re using, what operating system you’re using, your screen resolution, which Web site you came from (if you clicked a link from somewhere else), how long you looked at a web page, and what search terms were used if you arrived from a search engine.

It used to be that when you visited a Web site, information about your visit was only collected by the computer serving the Web site. Not any more. So many Web sites have Google Analytics and Google Adsense embedded that Google has the ability to build detailed profiles of people who don’t even use any of its products.

In fact, Google has grown to the point where it’s essentially become a private version of the National Security Agency. It’s already using the data it has to sell ads to companies that want to reach specific users. This is known as behavioral targeting.

Independent analysis of Google’s data collection policies and privacy practices has been scathing.

Two years ago, in a report on privacy practices of major Internet companies, Privacy International ranked Google the worst, declaring: “We have witnessed an attitude to privacy within Google that at its most blatant is hostile, and at its most benign is ambivalent. These dynamics do not pervade other major players such as Microsoft or eBay, both of which have made notable improvements to the corporate ethos on privacy issues.”

And Danny Dover, a consultant for local SEO firm SEOmoz, wrote in a blog post last year: “The final resting place for data at Google is likely in permanent storage. Google’s privacy policies hint that some user data can never be completely deleted because of permanent backups.”

Don’t like the idea of sharing your life online with Google? Avoid Google products and configure your browser to shield yourself. Tutorials are available at www.leavegooglebehind.com/how-tos

Longtime Eastside resident Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute. Villeneuve can be reached at andrew@nwprogressive.org.


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