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BLOG: Is Google evil? The jury is out

Ira Winkler | Feb. 2, 2012
Google's changes to its privacy policy should have been expected. It's what any corporation intent on maximizing value would do. But does that make it right?

Much outrage has been expressed about Google's new privacy policy . People are acting as if they are shocked that Google would consolidate the personal information it gathers from its customers through all of its varied services. What is shocking to me is that none of these people, including members of Congress, seemed to see it coming.

Google's move doesn't surprise me. In fact, three years ago, I gave a presentation at an RSA conference saying that the information that Google was gathering through its wide-ranging services was just too tempting and that consolidation of that data was inevitable, despite the compromise of privacy that would result. (The presentation wasn't recorded, but you can view an interview I did at the time that summarizes what I had to say.)

The title of my presentation was "Is Google Evil?" Now, as then, I think the answer is no. It is a business. It exists in order to create value, and it has done that by making use of personal information that consumers freely give to it. Consolidation of that information carries serious privacy implications, but the company that does such a thing isn't evil. Companies will do what they can within the law to get the most value out of their assets. We'll get to the question of just what should be allowed by law when it comes to personal information, but let's drop the name-calling. Companies are expected to extract value where they can, and when they do so they can't be called evil any more than a lion that chases down and tears into the weakest gazelle.

That said, there is plenty to get upset about regarding Google's new policy. Google has managed to wriggle into just about every area of our lives. It all started with Google search, of course, and that seemed innocuous. But later you could sign up for a Gmail account, and suddenly any searches you did while signed onto Gmail could have an identity assigned to them -- and Google roughly knew what was on your mind. Google Docs was another chance to gather data, and the social network Google+ really ups the ante. Every post is captured, and Google has access to information such as who is in your circles -- not only that you know those people, but what your relationship is to them, because you've defined your circles so carefully (family, friends, colleagues, fellow alumni). Google Calendar reveals where you are going to be. Google Maps gleans where you are considering going. Google Latitude knows exactly where you are right now. Picasa stores pictures, and if you carefully tag them, you have provided more information about where you have been and whom you have been with. Google Chrome keeps track of your browsing habits and history. Google Checkout and Google Wallet know what you are buying and where you are. The Android operating system can track every aspect of your cellphone usage, including the apps you have loaded. YouTube searches can reveal proclivities that you might not want other people to know about.


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