Google, privacy & you (Part 2)

6/1/2012 2:50:50 PM


‘Is 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.

Description: Google - Illegals?

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 significant lines.

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 safe.’

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 too late.

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 future.

The big question

‘When 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

While you can’t reject the privacy policy 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 covered by this new, unified privacy policy. The firm is still keeping 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.

Google’s policy

Description: Google’s policy

Google’s policy

Google’s updated privacy policy runs to 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 and photo.’

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 tapes).’

Description: Google’s privacy policy update

Google’s privacy policy update

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