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Has Google Killed Privacy? December 13, 2009

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy.

In an interview last week on CNBC, Google CEO Eric Schmidt pointedly made the connection between a person’s desire for privacy and the likelihood of their engaged in an activity they prefer to keep secret.  He said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Beyond the inflammatory nature of the remark, it’s worthwhile exploring the relationship between information access and privacy.  The thing that has been in some measure protecting our privacy over the years is the disjointed nature of the data collected on us by governments and private entities.  Databases were single-purpose, and data weren’t shared between organizations or agencies.  We owe much of our privacy over the last 40 years to obscurity and bad systems design, not conscious intent.

Today our data collectors are much more efficient at aggregating and interpreting data.  And through the Internet we are providing them far more data to work with.  They are even selling and sharing data to one another, so that data we provide for one purpose can be used for quite different purposes.

So my supermarket makes it easy and worthwhile for me to use a reward card, or at least a credit card, so that it can identify both me and my purchases (disclosure: I use cash exclusively in the supermarket), with the intent of targeting advertising to me.  Or the Federal government can attach my tax refund if I am delinquent on my student loan payments.

Google’s motivations are easy to understand, and are not particularly nefarious.  It wants to make money, and the best way of doing so is to provide its customers with better data on prospects.  And we may actually prefer to get ads and offers that are targeted based on our past behavior, rather than receive a broad range of largely worthless pitches.

The more data the company has, and the better organized it is, the more we get the uneasy sense that Google knows too much about us.  It is easy to simply say, as Schmidt did last week, that if we choose to participate in the value and convenience of the information society, we have to trade something off, and that something is the expectation that the information that we offer for individual transactions will not be aggregated with other data and used for entirely different purposes.

Still, Google’s informal “do no evil” motto won’t help it here.  Participation in the information society is not an option today; it’s a requirement to be both an informed citizen and a contributing member of society.  Society can’t have tradeoffs for that.  We need to count on Google, both because of that motto and because its size and leadership position enables it do the most harm, to lead the way to responsible use of personal data.

By all accounts, it has a mixed record here, and Schmidt’s statement is strong evidence that it is in the process of abdicating its responsibility.  The thing about technology is that it is the natural order for one technology to supplant another that has outlived its usefulness, or that its purveyor begins to take for granted.  Google also seems to be on that path.  We may find over the next few years that the Next Big Thing in computing may well supplant Google.



1. Yes Virginia, Privacy is Dead « Cutting Edge Computing - July 17, 2011

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2. Yes Virginia, Privacy is Dead | World's Greatest T-Shirt - July 24, 2011

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