"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

More Invasions of Privacy

Today’s (1.25.12) Washington Post carries an article http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/faq-googles-new-privacy-policy/2012/01/24/gIQArw8GOQ_story.html  about Google’s dangerous but not entirely unexpected expanded invasion of privacy policies.  Google has long tracked user use on its search engine – that is, every inquiry we make is recorded by Google.  The reason given, to which I have referred before on this blog, is to make advertising more tailor-made to the consumer.  If Google sees that you have visited a number of sites on Turkey, for example, it will show you advertisements for hotels in Istanbul, low-cost fares, and restaurants.  If it sees that you have shown an interest in Turkish rugs, it will offer you a selection of appropriate carpet salesrooms in your area (of course Google knows where you are, even if your platform does not have GPS).

Google, through its Gmail service, has also long-tracked every word you write; so that if you have an email exchange with a friend about a possible trip to Turkey, you will see ads, like those I suggested above, on your Gmail home page.

Since Google bought YouTube last November, it has employed its software there as well.  Google tracks the videos you watch, then offers you products and services related.  To extend the current example, if you have been watching clips of Whirling Dervishes in Konya, Turkey, Google will guess that you want to go there, but will also suggest to you some books on dervishes and Sufism.

So far so good – at least for those who value tailor-made advertising to the invasion of privacy and the collection of vast personal information on your habits, likes, preferences, and choices.   However, for those of us who care more about personal privacy, these intrusions are unwelcome.

Suppose, for example, that a person has been diagnosed with a particular type of cancer, and immediately goes online to find out all she can about it – its severity, recurrence rates, cure rates, therapy, etc.  Google will then, through its advertisers posted on your Google website, direct you to hospitals which specialize in your types of cancer, books related to your treatment, and doctors in your area with particular credentials of interest to you.

Again, all well and good for those people who value this kind of relevant, targeted advertising, but worrisome for those of us on the other side.  As we all know, the Internet is porous – anyone who wants information from you can get it.  It does not take a sophisticated hacker to find out your health viewing habits, and insurance companies can certainly do so.  Suppose you have had a mammogram and and MRI in close succession, suggesting to the insurance company, but not proving, that you might have breast cancer.  A quick hack into your Google search files can easily turn up valuable information about your likely condition, and you would be put on a red flag alert monitoring system. 

And if the insurance companies can and will use your private and personal information, the United States Government will not be far behind.  They will not even need to develop their own unified platforms – they will simply strike a deal with Google, beginning with an application of the Patriot Act to ‘stop terrorism’, and then extending to other areas they consider subversive or prejudicial to national security.

I have written before how the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) of the US Government has negotiated a deal with Google to have access to information from users on their ‘flu’ searches.  CDC has found this to be a very reliable predictor of the evolution of an epidemic.  If CDC sees that there are a disproportionate number of hits on ‘flu’ or ‘influenza’ in a particular locality, it knows that the virus has begun to infect people there…far before its more traditional monitoring systems provide that information.

At first glance, many people will like this.  Why not provide our premier epidemiological research institution with as much data as it needs?  Many people do not, because once again it is Government invading personal privacy.

Now, if all this is not bad enough, Google is now unifying all information from all its platforms – Google Search, Gmail, and YouTube among others.  That is, your search behavior on YouTube is immediately shared with your search engine and your email – and vice-versa.  Google now has the means to collect even more information about you and to put it together. 

The worst news of all is that Google has refused an ‘opt-out’ provision for its users.  That is, you will not be able to opt out of the unified system.  You will be tracked, monitored, and used regardless of your preferences.  That, or you move to Bing and Yahoo.

In closing, anyone reading this post should take all steps to stop Google from implementing their new policy.  Remember the rollback of SOPA or the rescinding of the streaming-DVD account policy of Netflix.  Public outcry can and has worked.

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