Does Google know too much about us?

Culture and technology.
Oct. 10 2007 3:29 PM

Google's Evil Eye

Does the Big G know too much about us?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Except for a moody period in my early 20s, I have not kept a journal. Yet, like many people, I do have a place where I regularly confide my fears, insecurities, and dreams: "cell phone cancer link," "michael agger slate," "pennsylvania farm for sale." Google is always willing to listen—and to cough up details about high-school classmates. Although I knew that Google was recording my searches, tucking them away on some server somewhere, I never really worried about it. Maybe I should have.

A few months ago, a friend told me that he had stopped using Gmail. This seemed crazy. Gmail is free, it looks good, and you never have to delete anything. He thought it was a bad idea to entrust your personal communication to one company: "You don't know what they do with your e-mail. Even if you delete it, it still exists on their servers." Another friend, a lawyer, told me how Gmail exists in a murky privacy area. Because the Google servers "read" your e-mail to place the ads that appear next to it, a note sent via Gmail may not be a protected communication in the same way that a letter sent through the postal service is.

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Google's fingerprints aren't just on your e-mail. Last week, the Senate held hearings regarding Google's proposed acquisition of Doubleclick. Google dominates the micro-end of Internet advertising with its text ads. Doubleclick is the leading provider of banner ads, like the one at the top of this page. A combined Googleclick would be a force in Internet advertising—Google makes 99 percent of its profits from ads—and have an awesome ability to track your online behavior. Google will be able to inform advertisers what sites your browser has visited, what ads have been clicked on, what search terms have been used. The company can also get a good idea of your physical location from your computer's IP address. And that's just the tip of the data iceberg. If Sony wants to target teenage PlayStation 3 owners in Southern California with a special promotion on flatscreen TVs, who do you think they are going to call?

Once you start thinking of Google's potential reach, it's easy to become paranoid. I am presently a happy user of Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Reader, Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Chat, Google Groups, Google Video, and Google Notebook (which I use to clip interesting things online). I also love Google Desktop, which has indexed the contents of my computer. What has Google made of all this information? If they wanted, they could know my friends, my family, my weakness for homemade YouTube soccer highlights. They could know what car I drive, where I drive it to, and where I shop. They definitely know what blogs I read and how often I read them. They took a picture of the building where I live. They just started a 411 service that will give them my voice. They're making me a mobile phone. The attention they've lavished on me would be flattering, if it weren't so vaguely menacing. I'm not alone in this feeling.

When I called Daniel Brandt, Google's most persistent and dedicated critic, the conversation was a lot like discussing the grassy knoll circa 1966. He's based in Texas, drops the word spook a lot, and runs a site called Google Watch, which, with its low-res gifs and multicolored links, has the feel of a mimeographed 'zine. On the phone, he's quick with dates and exasperated pronouncements. "The high-tech press has been kowtowing to the Google line for the last seven years," he opined. "There are a lot of meaningless things about the Google work environment. You can bring your dog to work. The name is funny-sounding and cute. But no one pays attention to the arrogance of the company."

Brandt first encountered that arrogance in 2002 when he discovered that the Google cookie—a file they put on your computer to identify your browser—wasn't set to expire until 2038. (It now expires in two years but renews itself whenever you use a Google site.) Brandt's main strike against Google is really a belief that it's acquiring information that is "too delicious" to keep under wraps. When we search, "we reveal what our interests are and what our intentions are. What we might be doing tomorrow. That's the No. 1 thing spooks want to know about you." While there is no evidence that Google turns over information to the FBI or the NSA, the value of what Google gathers, Brandt holds, is simply too alluring to keep away from the government's eyes.

Brandt also has a more direct complaint: "Google puts a lot of crap on the Web." He points to the search results, which used to be a simple list of sites and now have paid-for "sponsored links" at the top: "Ninety-five percent of people don't know the difference between a sponsored link and a normal search result." In response, Brandt created a site called Scroogle, which allows you to query Google anonymously and returns search results without ads or other Google ad-ons. Brandt also has an interesting take on how Google props up Wikipedia as a premier information source, since more than 50 percent of Wikipedia's traffic comes from Google searches. If you wish to enter further into Brandt's matrix, read about how he uncovered a likely MI-5 agent operating on Wikipedia under the alias Slimvirgin. The winding road starts here.

Whether or not you agree with Brandt or other privacy watchdogs, they outline the bargain we've entered into with Google. There's a video on YouTube called "Web 2.0 … The Machine Is Us/ing Us" that illustrates (to a pleasing soundtrack) the idea that our links, searches, and clicking around teach the search engines our preferences, habits, and values. By Googling, we are supplying the company data with which to parse and analyze us. The resulting profile has a huge value for advertisers, especially as more of us ignore mass culture in favor of our online microclimates. The "price" that we pay for Google's free services is to present ourselves as better targets for niche marketing.

So what? you might ask. Think back to the supposedly anonymous search logs released by AOL last year, which were quickly linked to individual users. Paul Boutin's piece in Slate included this arresting detail: "The searches of AOL user No. 672368 morphed over several weeks from 'you're pregnant he doesn't want the baby' to 'foods to eat when pregnant' to 'abortion clinics charlotte nc' to 'can christians be forgiven for abortion.' " The chance our search records will get exposed is remote, but not impossibly remote. Google has responded by anonymizing search logs after 18 to 24 months, and by promising that our data are secure.

Google seems mystified by those who ascribe bad intentions to it. The company wants to make advertising "relevant and useful" and the company's co-founder Sergey Brin sees search as more than just a way to find free music. "The perfect search engine would be like the mind of God," he has said, and CEO Eric Schmidt spun visions of a future where Google helps you find your next job, or your real path in life. Give us the information, Google whispers, and we will tell you what you really think. The Oracle at Mountain View replaces the Oracle at Delphi. There are ways, of course, to avoid Google's gaze. You can delete your cookies often and, to be especially careful, get a new IP address assigned to your computer on a regular basis. You can also simply choose not to use Google. But there is essentially no way to opt-out of the dossier that Google has assembled about you. Except maybe the path that Brandt offered me: "The only solution is to change your name to John Smith."

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