A new Big Brother?
Privacy concerns are being raised regarding Google
Associated Press | July 20, 2005
|NEW YORK - Google is at once a powerful search engine and a growing e-mail provider. It runs a blogging service, makes software to speed Web traffic and has ambitions to become a digital library. And it is developing a payment service.
Although many Internet users eagerly await each new technology offering from Google Inc., its rapid expansion is prompting concerns that the company may be getting to know too much: what you read, where you surf and travel, to whom you write.
"This is a lot of personal information in a single basket," said Chris Hoofnagle, senior counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Google is becoming one of the largest privacy risks on the Internet."
Criminals could steal data for blackmail or identity theft through hacking or with the assistance of rogue employees. Recent high-profile privacy breaches elsewhere underscore the vulnerability of even systems where strict security measures are taken.
"Google is perhaps the most noteworthy right now by the simple fact that they are the 800-pound gorilla," said Lauren Weinstein, a veteran computer scientist and privacy advocate. "What they do tends to set a pattern and precedent."
Google says it takes privacy seriously.
"In general, as a company, we look at privacy from design all the way through launch," said Nicole Wong, a Google attorney.
She also said Google regularly seeks feedback from civil liberties groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, both of which credit Google for listening even if it doesn't always agree.
Google chief executive Eric Schmidt says a trade-off exists between privacy and functionality, and the company believes in making fully optional - and seeking permission beforehand - any services that require personally identifiable information.
But what is meant by personally identifiable information is subject to debate.
Here are just a few of the ways Google can collect data on users:
* One of Gmail's selling points is its ability to retain e-mail messages "forever."
* Google's program for scanning library books sometimes requires user names to protect copyrights.
* The company is testing software for making Web pages load more quickly, but the application routes all Web requests through Google servers.
* Google provides driving directions, photo sharing and instant messaging, and it is developing a payment service that critics say could add billing information to user profiles.
Because storage is cheap, data from these services can be retained indefinitely, and Google won't specify how long it keeps such information.
Without elaborating, Google says it "may share" data across such services as e-mail and Internet searches. It also provides information to outside parties serving as Google's agents, though they must first agree to uphold Google's privacy policies.
Much of the concern, though, stems from a fear of the unknown.
Anne Rubin, 20, a New York University junior who uses Google's search, Gmail and blogger services, says quality overrides any privacy concerns, and she doesn't mind that profiles are built on her in order to make the ads she receives more relevant. "I see it as a trade-off. They give services for free. I have a vague assumption that things I do aren't entirely private. It doesn't faze me."