Google: You Have No Right to Privacy

I knew Google has absolutely zero regard for the customers it serves, but until now I was unaware that they were so open about the fact. Though I have been exasperated for years at the willingness of millions of people to have their online activity monitored, analysed and the resulting data sold to advertisers for a small fortune, I believe this latest news item will attract little attention.

In California, Google is currently subject to a legal challenge against its well-known practice of having its computers read every email sent and received by GMail users (to collect data for targeted advertising).  The policy, which has alarmed many a Google customer and proven very popular with advertising networks, is now being adopted by many rival email providers. Soon, the idea that your personal emails are not read and details of them sold to third parties will be a complete novelty.  Google seems to think that it already is, as it said in its submission to the Californian court:

“Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient’s assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their communications are processed by the recipient’s ECS [electronic communications service] provider in the course of delivery.”

This will surprise many of us, who view the system which delivers our bank statements as being more like the Post Office. Instead, through a combination of our emails, web searches and website visists, our virtual ‘Post Office’ can work out an incredible range of facts about us. Not only does Google know the normal things such as income, gender, even political orientation, but it can predict with alarming accuracy the probability that a user will divorce over the next 12 months.

So what? I hear you ask. It might be the case that a computer knows about me, my aspirations and my private life, but it will only use the information to try to sell me things that I want, right? To which I have two answers. The first is that advertising is becoming ever more sophisticated and personalised, and this about more than showing someone a Big Mac offer when they’re hungry. What is developing is a legalised system of psychological manipulation, and one that will exert alarming levels of influence over our thoughts. If you think that regulators will intervene to impose ethical limits on the advertising industry, I suggest you look at governments’ records in defending their people against the excesses of the oil, food and banking industries.

The second is that computer hackers should never be underestimated. As a person who knows teenage computer hackers and what they are capable of doing, I find it hard to believe that an experienced hacker could not access any data files in Google’s servers that are linked to a particular  email or IP address. The fact is, the more information we surrender to the likes of Google, the more vulnerable we make ourselves to third parties.

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8 thoughts on “Google: You Have No Right to Privacy

  1. Well that’s pretty scary stuff. :/

  2. The only problem with Google’s response is that it is nothing like their analogy. If they want to make an analogy to the postal service then they should say it is like your postman reading all of your mail. Google is the delivery service not a secretary for the world.

    • Very true: that would be a more accurate analogy. Does Google consider the virtual world to be no larger in scope and definition than one ‘workplace’ in this analogy, or is that simply not the case? People sending a communication through the postal system don’t expect it to be read if its in an envelope, and in the same way they trust that there’s an envelope of privacy around their electronic communications.

      I agree with you that their logic in avoiding/twisting the post analogy is very woolly.

  3. Good article! I have mixed feelings about my gmail … or, I guess they aren’t really mixed at all … I hate it. I am politically active in many areas, but I have to admit that I have taken a ‘back seat’, so to speak, when it comes to privacy and technology issues. I know I shouldn’t have a gmail or use google, but I do.

    And, agree–I think that people should be more weary of private companies. A lot of people are concerned about the government accessing our private information, but forget how much power and influence private companies have over policy and our every day lives. So, I don’t like them having my information either!

    • Thank you!

      It takes a lot of energy- and more importantly, time- to just keep on top of the political issues that exist in the world, and we all have to decide where to be proactive and where to be less so.

      What I’ve often found when discussing Google is that a number of people are concerned by the various privacy and ethical issues, but when, for example, they use GMail, they are trapped. After all, nobody can change their email account without giving new contact details to literally hundreds of people and organisations. That’s why Google- and many other companies- must be more upfront about how they use personal data before people open accounts with them, rather than leaving them to learn of some rather shocking facts when they’re already committed.

      That’s a good point you raise about the relationship between corporate and governmental power. The fundamental problem we face is that electronic privacy isn’t something that’s encouraged by either side, as they do work together in their interests a lot more readily than most of us like to think.

      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Thanks for this article. It was very well written!

    I didn’t know that Google actually read and shared that much data.That’s very scary. Thank God I don’t use Gmail!! I do agree that Google should not be engaging in this practice and hope that the California court makes it clear to Google that it’s actions are unconstitutional.

    I took a class in Social Psychology that talked about the influence advertisers have on consumers. They subtly, and not so subtly, tell us what we need (for instance, a shampoo that makes your hair shinier), then tell us why we need it (your hair is too dull and everyone notices)! It really is psychological manipulation. It’s very dishonest.

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