Beware as Google peeks -- legally -- at your personal info

By Jim Calloway

The Daily Record Newswire

Et tu, Google?

The recent shift in Google's privacy policy has to rank as one of the most significant items in technology news so far this year.

Google will now combine all your data from all Google services, and users won't be able to opt out.

Long before I saw the movie "The Social Network," I had come to the conclusion that the members of the Facebook team were, quite frankly, not good people.

Facebook rolls out change after change of its privacy policy, the impact of each being that users have to make changes to keep up, lest their personal information is shared more broadly than originally intended.

The average users really have no hope of maintaining control unless they're privacy zealots willing to spend hours researching and coping with each change.

My friend Ben Schorr once said to me that you can't look at Facebook as just a way to share information with friends. It's more accurate to look at Facebook as a giant advertising operation intent on selling your information, which baits you into providing that information by letting you also share it with friends.

Google, on the other hand, maintained as its informal motto, "Don't be Evil." It was the company that allowed us to use the web in a meaningful way by giving us Google search. It seemed to be the embodiment of the idea that a company could do a great public service and make a healthy profit.

GMail, Google Reader, Google Translate and many other services improved my life, did not cost me a thing, and Google made tons of money with various advertising services.

That was pre-2012. Now Google is going to use my information in ways that I never intended, and the nice little phrase "no opting out" can be Google-translated as: "And there's nothing you can do about it."

In a blog at the website Lexician, Stephen B. Levy notes: "Maybe if I'm from New York, I'll see more articles favorable to the Giants for the next 10 days. If I'm from Massachusetts, I'll see articles supporting the Patriots.

"That doesn't seem so bad... at first. But let's dig a bit deeper.

"Let's say I'm a political animal. Perhaps I get a lot of mail from Move On, or spend time with the Drudge Report. Google already uses this information to select what it shows me when I search. The 'Obama' links shown to the Move On reader are very different from those shown to the Drudge browser."

That's pretty significant. I can imagine someone working on a degree in abnormal psych may have some interesting sponsored links in their GMail account. Congress passed a law saying video rental stores could not keep permanent records of what movies I rent, but now Google will be doing just that for the YouTube videos I watch.

It really is quite Orwellian, except it turns out Big Brother isn't the government, but Google, which is already much more powerful than a bunch of national governments.

What can be done legally? Not much. European privacy laws may eventually temper some things, and there will be antitrust investigations and congressional hearings.

But Google is already too ingrained in our personal and professional lives for most of us to even limit our usage. Google Reader will know your online reading habits, and combining that with your YouTube viewing habits will give a significant window into your life and thinking.

What Google has proved is the cliche about online services: If you're not paying for the product, you are the product.

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Jim Calloway is the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He publishes the weblog Jim Calloway's Law Practice Tips at http://jimcalloway.typepad.com.

Published: Fri, Feb 3, 2012

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