what Google has done actually illegal?’
But is what Google has done actually
illegal? In terms of the bricks and mortar of the policy itself, and we say
this as no lawyers, we’d suspect probably not, even if many of us don’t like
it. It’ll certainly be interesting to see what substance CNIL can come up with
regarding its ‘strong doubts about the lawfulness and fairness of such
processing’. As of now? The substance hasn’t been forthcoming.
After all, you can aim lots of things at
Google, but its nobody’s fool, and if this is an extension of the privacy
policy that’s been in existence for years, then it’s unlikely to hit a legal
roadblock now. We don’t doubt that it’ll be skating as close to grey areas as
its lawyers reckon it can get away with, although that’s obviously just our
opinion. But there’s no clear evidence that its new policy steps over any
Instead, what’s being challenged is the
method by which the changes were brought it. More specifically, its strategy of
seemingly railroading the changes through at maximum speed.
If, then, in the most extreme of
circumstances, Google was found and proven to have broken a law somewhere along
the line, what’s the most that’s likely to happen? Having to temporarily
retract its policy change, before passing it again anyway? Paying a fine? It’s
hard to think of much that won’t be little more than a pin prick where Google
is concerned, and the truth is likely to be that its stealthy approach has
worked. It’s played out like a truncated case of apologise later, rather than
ask permission first. Only without the apology bit.
For Google’s part, it argues strongly that
it’s doing the right thing. ‘The new policy doesn’t change any existing privacy
settings or how any personal information is shared outside of Google,’ Alma
Whitten argued on the firm’s official blog. ‘We aren’t collecting any new of
additional information about users. We won’t be selling your personal data. And
we will continue to employ industry-leading security to keep your information
She signs off by saving ‘We’ll continue to
look for ways to make it simpler for you to understand and control how we use
the information you entrust to us. We build Google for you, and we think these
changes will make our services even better.’
Perhaps the reason that so many people were
up in arms over what Google was up to, though, is that not many of us pay much
attention to our online privacy anyway. That’s not always our fault; you can
hardly say that companies have, as a rule, gone out of their way to explain
things clearly and succinctly, and then given us a sufficient opt-out if we
don’t like it. Nonetheless, we’ve somehow been complicit in allowing a
computing ecosystem to develop where an EULA running to over 10,000 words can
be produced, and require adherence to, just for buying a music download.
Furthermore, the problem is, like it or
lump it, that companies do monitor what we do online, and are falling over
themselves to sell each other products that capitalise on what they know about
us. Google, more than anyone else, has pioneered this model, and if of us had
it outlined how found it all really rather sinister. As it happens, our online
privacy has been eroded on a slice-by-slice basis. Rather than it all going in
one chunk, a succession of services, products and policies have taken it away,
a little bit at a time, and it’s the kind of thing few people notice until it’s
For most people, this really isn’t a
problem. After all, how many of us would stop using the Google search engine if
we were fully aware of just what results it was amalgamating, and then choosing
to use? It’s not as if the firm is employing thousands of human beings to run
though everything we do, either. Instead it uses computers, running behavioural
tracking programs, which couldn’t care less whether you’ve been looking at what
time Location Location Location starts or pictures of people dancing in new and
innovative ways. That said, this information is still potentially being stored.
If someone ever wants it one day, could they get their hands on it?
The end of the path?
Where does this all lead? That’s perhaps
the scariest question. If someone you didn’t know (heck, even someone you did
know) knocked on your door and said ‘Give me your passwords, the names of your
most emailed people, a picture of your house, your holiday photographs, the
names of the last 20 videos you watched online and what kind of holiday you’ve
been searching for,’ you’d tell them where to go. Google takes all of this,
under the cover of its policies, and never individually has to ask your
permission to do so – ever again, by the looks of it.
People rarely get too worked up about
matters such as these until they directly affect them negatively in some way.
Again, keeping things in some sense of proportion, chances are that’ll never
happen. But what happens when your data is targeted in a way that you’re not
comfortable with? At the very least, there are considerations that deserve more
than the scant attention they tend to get.
Furthermore, let’s not forget that
governments around the world are regularly requesting information from Google.
Some of these requests are denied, but as the firm has revealed, more than a
few are granted. Any government, furthermore, could pass a law that potentially
would make it much easier to get their hands on the data that Google and its
ilk store. All this may not be a concern now, but it might well be in the
The big question
it comes to the crunch, who’s bothered to do anything about it?’
Google is not alone in the way it tracks
and utilises behavioural data, with many online stores alone likely to owe much
of their business to the technology. However, it does ask a broader question as
to whether a large proportion of the world’s websites, to some degree, operate
on some kind of impingement, consensual or otherwise, of our online privacy. We
looked at this, just last issue, when we talked about analytics and tracking
cookies on websites.
It all leads to what’s arguably the
ultimate defining question here: when it comes to the crunch, who is bothered
enough to do something about it? Google and its contemporaries would likely
suspect that the answer to that is not very many at all. At most, some
individuals and organisations without too many teeth have protested.
Governments, who could do something substantive, have generally kept quiet. And
that’s why, ultimately, this latest raft of changes as been able to happen so
quickly. If nothing changes? So will the next lot too…
How to opt out
outright and still continue to use a Google service while being logged in, you
can still adjust how much history Google is allowed to collect on you. To do
this, you need to go into your Google account, choose Account Overview, and
then select the opinion to View, enable or disable web history. From here, you
have the option to pause your web history, or remove it altogether. This will
limit just what information Google holds on you.
Google Wallet, Chrome and Books
Not every service that Google offers is
stand-alone policies for a few of its services, specifically Google Wallet,
Google Chrome, and Google Books. Presumably, different agreements and
regulations govern the deployment of each of those products.
Much Ado about nothing
‘Let them look at everything I do,’ a
friend of ours said to us recently. ‘If they want to take a look, help
themselves. I’ve got nothing to hide’.
It’s easy to forget, in the furore that
inevitably kicks up whenever our privacy is threatened in some way, that
there’s a counter-argument to be considered. It’s worth considering that we may
just ben getting our proverbial knickers in a twist over every little.
The scary adage of old was that if you
hadn’t done anything wrong, then you’ve nothing to be frightened of. It always
was a terrible historic argument, as has been proven time and time again. But
some would argue that factors such as privacy tend to get blown just a little
out of proportion. Take Google StreetView, for instance. For all the complaints
that arose when that was first introduced – some in this very magazine – what
difference or harm has it actually done? Has its usefulness actually outweighed
the noisy criticisms when it was first rolled out? Are, sometimes, we confusing
bad manners with massive infringements on our lives? Different people, as you’d
expect, have different viewpoints on this.
just short of 2,300 words, explaining what information it collects (including
credit card and telephone numbers), and what information it can glean by you
using its services (the model of your mobile phone, your geographical location,
how long you were on the phone for). It also then explains how it uses that
information to tailor content to you, right through to updating past names
associating with your Google accounts, ‘so that you are represented
consistently across all our services’. Interestingly, it says that ‘If other
users already have your email or other information that identifies you, we may
show them your publicly visible Google Profile information, such as your name
It also talks about how you can access and
update your personal information, with the disclaimer being that ‘We may reject
requests that are unreasonably repetitive, require disproportionate technical
effort (for example, developing a new system or fundamentally changing an
existing practice), risk the privacy of others or would be extremely
impractical (for instance, requests concerning information residing on backup