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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?

Until now, we could think of all of these as stand-alone services. Each had information about us, but the threat of privacy invasion seemed manageable. It's a different story when it all gets consolidated. Now, for all practical purposes, a single entity has the ability to put together your past, present and future. Who calls you on your Android phone can be combined with what you are searching. The interests you repeatedly post about can be combined with your location. Your appointments can be cross-referenced with your acquaintances' appointments.

What we know is that Google tries to monetize the information it has about the users of its services by selling advertising that is carefully targeted to their interests. Facebook and other companies do similar things. Some people have been sized up pretty well just based on their searches. Others have not. Wired recently ran a short piece on how Google currently can be inaccurate in its current analysis of a user's searches . After consolidation, though, there will be little ambiguity.

The argument is that presenting you with ads that you are really interested in serves both you and the advertisers. As things stand now, there's potential for unintended humor when things go awry. (This is only slightly fanciful: "I called my boss a pain in the butt on Facebook, and now I'm getting ads for hemorrhoid treatments.") With consolidation, the potential is for real mischief. With all that information at Google's fingertips, it might serve up ads like these:

"Your grandmother purchased a 30-day supply of fungicide and it is about to run out. Consider buying some for her upcoming birthday."

"Stephen browses lesbian porn on YouTube. Consider buying these videos for him as an anniversary present."

"Your employee John is currently in your competitor's office. Would you like to wish him well?"

"Your husband is scheduled to meet Linda at the Best Western. There is an Applebee's next door. Would you like to buy them a gift certificate for dinner?"

"Mary just purchased a new vibrator. Recommend batteries for her."

Extreme examples perhaps, but I'm pretty sure that embarrassment and humiliation via Google await all of us. And I am able to imagine all of these things while assuming that Google is not evil. Should it ever cross the line, then all of that information it has could be used for truly nefarious and malicious purposes, including extortion and harassment.

But that's just paranoia, right? After all, Google is saying that its new policy of consolidation will only be used in ways that are helpful to its users. OK, that sounds good. But wait a minute. Didn't Google used to say that all that information wouldn't be consolidated? And now it is being consolidated. Which means: Google can change its mind. It can rewrite its policies anytime it wants so that they say anything it wants.


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