Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Google's Gmail practices open up questions about privacy

Google is far and away the biggest web company in the world, and its Gmail service has lately come under intense scrutiny for its privacy practices.  A recent YouTube video mocking Gmail became a viral sensation; clearly, people are unhappy with Google's policies:


"Gmail Man" shows a mail man going through the mail he carries.  This seems outrageous and absurd, as people in the video repeatedly point out.  But it is what Google regularly does to your e-mail - it scans messages sent from non-Gmail accounts to Gmail inboxes, scans for keywords, and then sells that information to advertisers.

This is unsettling on many levels, and it's made to look all the more absurd when put into context in the video. And it's but one of many recent events for which Google has come under fire regarding privacy.  It made news last year when it was revealed that Google Street View Cars had been inadvertently mining data from local unsecured wireless networks for almost four years.  The Street View Cars, if you aren't aware, are cars that Google utilizes all over the world to take pictures for its Google Earth and Google Maps programs.  That alone brings up many questions we must ask - how comfortable are we with this kind of access, and is the specter of being watched without our knowledge worth the reward of using Street View?

At the bottom of Google's privacy practices - and with privacy in general in the age of the Internet - is the idea that consumers are largely too busy and not tech savvy enough to read the fine print and understand what is truly going on with their personal data.  Remember a few months ago when it came out that Apple was tracking and storing the locations of iPhones and iPads and, by proxy, their users?  There was, understandably, a loud and angry public crying out against Apple - How can they do this to us without our permission?, not realizing that they had in fact given Apple their permission.  Those annoying windows that pop up in iTunes every time you're prompted through a new update, to which you usually just hit "next" without thinking?  That's your consent.

This happens time and again, and as the world speeds up we find ourselves with less and less time to spare on reading the fine print.  So we must make a decision: How much do we value security?  We tend not to care much about these kinds of things until we're hit on a personal level; we're never careful about protecting our information until we have our identities stolen or privacy compromised because it seems like such a foreign, incomprehensible threat.  Now, to be sure, the information poached by Apple and Google is fairly benign - What genre of music do you like to purchase on iTunes, which grocery stores you frequent, etc.  But where is the line?  How far are we willing to take this?  At what point does personal data become "too personal"?  And who do you want making that call?

Obviously, that's a decision each person must make, and it's going to be different for every internet user.  Google's principal source of revenue is advertisement, and as it continues to grow it's going to have an unprecedented amount of access to our personal information that it can use for profit.  So be careful, be mindful, and protect yourself and your family's privacy, especially going forward as the world becomes ever more connected and ever more complex.  

2 comments:

  1. Big Brother is indeed here, practically speaking.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Scary. And depressing. ...

    ReplyDelete