Akie, Jeff, Dave & I discussed Google’s penchant for stealing user’s data while taking Street View photographs in Thursday’s Perpetual Post.
Right now a debate rages as to whether Google grossly overstepped its bounds by collecting and saving the data of users on wireless unencrypted networks for around 3 years. Frankly, I don’t see how there is any way that Google’s actions are defensible. Even if, as the company’s management claims, higher-ups were actually unaware that this data was being gathered, then the issue is still concerning, because it means that Google has some huge issues as far as supervising its employees or even being aware of what they are doing.
And ultimately, I find their sing-song “we didn’t know it was going on,” defense to be pretty unbelievable. Really, Google? For 3 years, mountains of private citizens’ data was being recorded and stored by your company, and none of the employees who were recording it ever said, ‘Hey, is this thing on? ’ In 3 years? Nobody ever came across the saved files and said, ‘Huh, what is this information and why are we collecting and storing it?’ I suppose this is why Google’s company motto isn’t “Don’t Be Willfully Ignorant”. If the company’s claims are true, and they really had no idea that this data collection was happening, then at the very least it would mean that Google operates pretty much like any other bumbling, corporate bureaucracy. It’s kind of like finding out that there’s no Santa, or that his elves, with or without his knowledge, save and store the records of which children have been naughty or nice for some unknown purpose.
In fact, Google’s famous ‘Don’t Be Evil’ company motto is receiving further scrutiny these days. Upon first blush it seems very hip and fun, the way Google itself seems, with its primary-colored logo and its funny name. ‘We’re like you, except in a billion dollar company!’ it seems to say. ‘Who likes evil? Not us!’ Still, when you think about it, evil is not always easy to define. There are a lot of grey areas, and what’s evil to me might be considered normal and necessary to, perhaps, a huge oil company or, say, a West Virginia coal mine.
It is also unclear at whom the phrase is actually being directed. Now that I think about it, the motto very well could be Google’s way of telling consumers not to be evil, and by ‘evil’ they mean, ‘concerned with their own privacy’ or maybe ‘questioning of Google’s motives’. Man. We should probably stop being so evil.
I am disturbed by the arguments of those who defend Google’s actions by stating that people who use unencrypted wireless networks are essentially asking for their data and information to be recorded by others. Perhaps their surfing habits are not password protected, but does this make them public knowledge? The last time I checked, the data of the kind Google was accused of collecting is not exactly left lying around on a park bench somewhere. Picking it up is not as easy as picking up someone’s dropped shopping list or reading their open diary. And even if it were, would that make it right? Just because my data is not locked up, does that mean it is no longer mine? Is it up for grabs? Is it morally right for someone else to snatch it up without my permission or knowledge? If I leave my diary out, and you read it, sure it’s partly my fault. But it’s your fault too!
The Supreme Court’s recent momentous (or monstrous, depending on your definition of ‘evil’) verdict declaring that corporations have the same rights as people as far as making donations to political candidates has raised an interesting issue as far as Google’s current quandary is concerned. If a corporation is to be treated like a person, then shouldn’t it be held to the same moral standards as a person? Especially when it’s a corporate person who preaches to us about evilness.
For the last few years, Google has built up a reputation as the Fun internet company. It’s young, it’s hip; everyone wants to be seen hanging out with it. But just because we’ve all been out with having a few beers and a few laughs with Google doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say anything when it rifles through our belongings while we’re in the can. You might be our friend, Google, but if you cross the line, we’ll still call you out on it and cut you down to size. We have to make sure you know what our boundaries are and that they need to be respected—otherwise, you might grow bolder, and who knows what you might do next.
Zoe and I took on Google’s new search suggestions in this week’s Perpetual Post.
The ever-helpful folks at Google are at it again. Now when you go to Google.com and begin to search for a word or phase, a list of related suggestions automatically pops up to guide you in your search, or destroy your faith in humanity. Either way, it saves valuable time.
The concept makes sense in theory. As Google’s website explains, “Suggestions come in real-time, so typing [ great w ] and clicking ‘great wall of china’ is faster and easier than typing it out.” You’re right, Google. That probably does save me a few seconds. But you lose me when, while searching for a recommended local dentist, I begin to type in “good dentist in the Raleigh area” and before I’m halfway finished, I receive the suggestion “good death knight names”. I understand that you’re trying to help here, Google, but this seems like a shot in the dark. Aside from the distraction of being shown searches I don’t want, there’s the simple disappointment of being misunderstood. That is not what I meant at all, Google. That is not it, at all. I search for a certain playwright or a song lyric, and Google is ready with suggestions. Are you looking for Shakespeare, or maybe Shakira? Are you searching for information on “christ the king sausage fest” or wondering “why does poop float?” Why indeed, Google. I’m glad you asked! It’s about time I wondered that.
Which brings me to another alarming aspect of this search mechanism: the fact that the suggested searches are apparently based on other searches that are done, as Google says, “by users all over the world”. Now, I don’t have a whole lot of faith left in the anonymity of anything I do on the internet. I understand that the web is not my personal playground, where I can come and go as I please, secure in my privacy, researching the mating habits of burros and reading “Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman” fan-fiction. I’m aware that it is possible for someone to be tracking my web surfing habits at all times. I don’t like it, but I try not to think about it, because without the internet I am a husk of a human being. However, when Google starts throwing the searches of others back in my face, even though they’re couched as ‘suggestions’, it is an uncomfortable reminder that virtually everything on the internet is being collected, catalogued and stored somewhere—mostly by Google! I don’t like being reminded of this. Can’t we conduct our deepest, darkest Google searches in private?
Not only that, but Google saves your own past searches and helpfully provides them when they might be relevant to (that is, use some of the same letters as) later searches—and it helpfully distinguishes searches you’ve personally done from others by placing the word ‘remove’ next to those searches. So the next time I go on the home computer and begin to search for “scattergories online” and I see the search “scabies symptoms” with that little tell-tale ‘remove’ next to it, I know that it’s time to have a talk with my live-in boyfriend.