Saturday, January 28, 2012

Google's New Privacy Policy - 3 Big Concerns

TITLE: Google's New Privacy Policy - 3 Big Concerns
Date: 27 Jan 2012
Written by: Conrade Yap

This week, anyone who uses Google products will have received a new privacy policy that can be read here. Whether you use GMail or Blog from Whether you work with Google Docs, or use Google Maps to navigate to your destinations. Whether you search with the ubiquitous Google search engine, or use Google Android operating system, you are automatically bounded to such conditions. Those who do not agree will have to simply stop using the services altogether.

I write this article with concerns about 3 things which I will elaborate later below. Safe to say, we are now increasingly trapped in a conundrum of "damned if we do, damned if we don't." In other words, even if we refuse the privacy agreement, do we really have a choice? Mind you, transferring all of our information from Google to non-Google services is no easy matter.

Snapshot of Google promises as they launch new privacy policy

A Legal Protective Umbrella for Google

Apparently, this move by Google is a cleverly done ploy to protect themselves for what they have been doing all along: Collecting personal data.  The basic premise behind the use of the Internet is free stuff. Information is freely shared on the Internet, and freely received. In such an open environment, it is possible to extract, to read, to produce materials on the Internet without having to pay a single cent. Yet, one fact remains: Nothing is for free. Even the use of Google costs us something.

Ever wonder how Google manages to make so much money off 'free stuff?' The fact is, Google has been collecting so much information that it is now the library of the online world.
  • Google does not have to pay royalty fees to bloggers who write and produce massive amounts of intellectual property;
  • Google does not need to pay private detectives to snoop into personal email files simply because a lot of emails are already inside their servers.
  • Google constantly receives tonnes of free information from users who use their search engines. Such information collected freely is in itself a mine of precious data that big corporations are willing to pay big money for.
  • Google Maps know exactly what people are searching, and their use of the map facility enables them to target companies and businesses who are the targets of searches.
There are many more. The main point is: Many people are already paying Google in kind, knowingly as well as unknowingly. This is the reason why Google has to cover themselves with more explicit policies as such. Google's two main points reveal to us what they have been doing all these while:

  1. "Information you give us"
  2. "Information we get from your use of our services."
Nothing is For Free, including Google services

Nothing is for free. In exchange for 'free' use of Google services, we exchange lots of personal information. I use Google a lot. While for the most part, I am quite satisfied with the services, I am concerned for 3 reasons.

#1 - There is no viable alternative.

Even if I want to use another service, we ask: "What is the Google alternative?" Maybe for Google Docs, there is Zoho, PeePel, OpenGoo, etc. For Maps, there is Mapquest or Yahoo! Maps. For emails, there is Hotmail, YMail, and many others. Perhaps, it is time to decentralize our services usage. Better still, let there be an Open Source Foundation initiative that comes from the people, for the people. Having said that, just the thought of having everything under one Google is scary. It brings about a lot of conveniences and familiarity. Unfortunately, the price is the loss of our privacy. The sad thing is that we have already been conditioned to the familiarity that we do not really have a viable choice but to keep giving to Google what Google asks of us.

#2 - Google knows more of us than we know them

This is scary. There is a lot of information that Google has. Sometimes, they know more of us than ourselves. I think, by asking users to agree to a new set of conditions, Google needs to do the Internet world a favour by providing more openness and clarity with regards to what they are doing with our information. Hold seminars. Organize events to tell the people openly and honestly. Make friends.

#3 - What Google do with our information

This is scary x10. All it takes is a change of management to one that is sinister and greedy, and soon, many online users will be held at ransom. I hope that Google will be more upfront.

In a provocative book, Siva Vaidhyanathan gives a compelling argument:

"Nonetheless, blind faith in Google is dangerous because Google is so good in what it does and because it sets its own rules." (Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything - and why we should worry, University of California Press, 2011, 5)

 Of the privacy policies, Vaidhyanathan warns us of the nature of businesses, that as far as the business is concerned, businesses come first, not users. Writes Vaidhyanathan,

"If you read the privacy policy carefully, it's clear that Google retains the right to make significant decisions about our data without regard for our interests. Google will not share information with other companies without user consent, but it asserts the right to provide such information to law enforcement or government agencies as it sees fit. If another company were to acquire Google, the policy states, the company would inform users of the transfer of the data. But there is no promise that users would have a chance to purge their data from Google's system in time to avoid a less scrupulous company's acquisition of it." (85)
The key privacy concern is actually about control. Who actually controls the use of the data? Is it Google? Or is it us? When the actual data is already in the hands of Google, it is like us putting our money in the bank, and insist that the bank operate according to our own laws. No. Life is not that simple. Our main concern now is not on control. It is Google holding the Internet world at ransom with the data that they already have. Now they are trying to figure a 'legal' way for them to hold that data. This is the crux of the new privacy policy.

If only there is a viable alternative for users like me who like to be able to control, but feels that Google is essentially the lesser of two evils right now. There is no guarantee that Google will not be the new evil. After all, why are they always reminding their employees: "Don't be evil"?

Perhaps, let me close with an example. Every household throws their garbage into the bin. Among the rubbish, there are some personal documentation like financial statements, utilities usage, bills, and all kinds of personal data. When we pass them on to the garbage collector, our assumption is that the garbage be burned, buried or incinerated. What if one day, someone somewhere is able to gather up all the crumbs and the data, piece them together, and then forms a database to infiltrate the lives of the households? Maybe this is a long shot. There is too much garbage anyway. In the Internet era, garbage is actually data. Computers do not recognize or categorize something as 'garbage' or not. It is data. Pure data that can be used for better or for worse. Let us pray and hope that the former is more likely than the latter.


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