Saturday, May 22, 2010

REALLY scary Google privacy invasion

Anyone who uses the Internet has come to terms with how little privacy they have in the face of Google’s quest to know everything about everyone everywhere. Whether it’s IP address, or cookies, or being logged in, Google knows what you’re searching and probably can associate it to something about you.

A few of us lazy (or incredibly cheap) Internet users have consented to even more privacy invasion by letting Google read our mail in perpetuity. (If Yahoo let me use their email for POP and SMTP, I’d be using my 12-year-old Yahoo account rather than my newer Gmail account.)

However, in all of these cases there is an element of consent. If I don’t like Google’s spying, at least I could switch to Microsoft or Yahoo’s or someone else’s.

So far, I’m even willing to believe Google — even if several sovereign countries will not — when they say they didn’t do anything with all the data they gathered with their Wi-Fi wardriving that somehow got programmed into their Street View spying.

However, there’s one place where I draw the line on trusting Google: Google’s recent admission that it’s considering bringing facial recognition to its search engine. As reported in the Financial Times,

Google executives are wrestling over whether to launch controversial facial recognition technology after a barrage of criticism over its privacy policies.

Eric Schmidt, chief executive, said a series of public disputes over privacy issues had caused the management team to review its procedures and the launch of new technologies. According to Google executives, facial recognition is one of the key topics of internal debate.

Mr Schmidt said: “Facial recognition is a good example...anything we did in that area would be highly, highly planned, discussed and reviewed. When you go through these things, you review your management procedures.”
If facial recognition were integrated with free Internet search, this means that 2 billion people with a cellphone — or 300 million Americans or 5 million people in my metropolitan area or 100,000 in community — could, at any time, snap a picture and then look me up. Unless I prevent everyone I’ve ever met from putting my photo on the web — and take all the existing ones down — there’s no way to opt out of this invasion of privacy.

More to the point, half of the population (male) could look up the other half of the population (female) and then— aided by or other address lookup services — become a really creepy and determined stalker. If that doesn’t creep you out, think about your sister, daughter, niece, granddaughter or someone else. In recent years, there have been too many kidnap-murders of girls and young women to ignore this possibility.

Google has had the technology since its 2006 acquisition of Neven Vision. Privacy worries forced it to back down from including it in Google Goggles last year.

Other companies — two Swedish and one Israeli — are demonstrating tools for such searches, and trying to license their technology to bigger firms. The latter claims to have identified 52 million people.

What is really troubling is that Google is demonstrating the same hubris about privacy that it did with stealing copyrighted material (whether GooTube or the book project). As the FT reported:
[Schmidt] would not rule out any eventual roll-out, saying: “It is important that we continue to innovate.”
In fact, the “continue to innovate” is almost identical to Bill Gates’ “freedom to innovate” rationalization for Microsoft being above the law during the peak of its power a decade ago.

It is this arrogance that has long worried Google observers, since the company seems so sure of its internal compass — perhaps because its employees are so much smarter than the unwashed masses — that it has tended to have a tin ear to external criticism.

Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan To Organize Everything We KnowAuthor Randy Stross confronted this very issue in a talk upon the release of his book Planet Google almost two years ago. As Prof. Stross told an San José Library audience:
The only time I am going to be most worried about what Google is doing is when they offer bland reassurances. [I’m not worried] when they agonize publicly — here are the issues for us, here [is why we] are agonizing — which is what they did when they confronted the question about what to do with the Chinese governments demand that they censor results for certain search terms.

As long as they do that, I think they can hold to “don’t be evil” but if they revert to standard corporate speak with the rote reassurances, this is a company that as I fear will know more about us than any entity — private or public — in the world. I don’t want to hear reassurances; I want to see them worry about my worries.
And if they don’t worry about my worries, what then? Depend on some foreign government or a grandstanding congressperson or attorney general to do the right thing? Hardly a comforting thought.


Joel West said...

On a somewhat related note, Peggy Noonan notes how the age of Google has prevented people from leaving their past behind and staring over again — a healthy safety vale that recycled the most ambitious.

(There are exceptions — you can still start over if you are helped by the government or organized crime to create a new (false) identity.)

Kenneth M. Kambara said...

Are you angling to be a producer of Dateline? As you probably know, the Chinese are also heavily into facial recognition.

The missing piece of this post is governments forcing Google to turn over "evidence." There was that NYC gossip girl case where Blogger turned over the ID to the court.

Anonymous said...

There has never been true privacy regarding personal information in any country including the U.S.. Before the electronic information age, personal information was collected by investigators on foot such as the credit industries. This information included what your neighbors, minister and employer think of you, how much you drink, how often do you go to church, DMV etc. I know this for a fact. Todays invasion is just the added advantages of technologies ability to obtain instantly updated and more factual data verses what someone thinks. Is this a good thing? For the ideal personal profile such as married, 2.3 children, church goer, non-drinker/smoker etc it "should" be no issue. But for the vast majority it seems really scary. Nontheless, invasion of privacy will prevail without limits. Actually, we are fortunate to be privey that such personal invasions are occuring. Imagine if you didn't even know about it?