Does Google need an Edward Snowden?

whistleblowerThis may not make me popular, but I am much more afraid of Google than I am of the NSA. Despite Edward Snowden’s revelations, for which I hope he will soon be prosecuted for treason, there isn’t evidence the NSA abused the information in ways that hurt normal Americans.

It takes a whole lot of ego to believe that your privacy is more important than hunting down terrorists. If secretly monitoring my communications could protect us from incidents like the Boston bombing or even help bring El Chapo justice, sign me up.

The caveat there is “secretly.” I don’t want know what’s being done. And that’s why I dislike Snowball the most: I was perfectly happy with my government’s sleuths going about their business and me going about mine. If they don’t abuse people, I’m cool.

I am not sure any of us really needed to know most of what Snowden has revealed. And that he has revealed it and continues to breathe says a lot of good things about the country he’s trashed.

My level-headedness, which some doubtless will see as stupid, blind faith, does not apply to Google, however.

Trust in Google?

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I truly believe that in using Google’s products and services – which I use every day – we are striking a pact with the Devil.

While the NSA is trying to protect me, Google is trying to learn as much as possible so its advertisers can sell me stuff. Further, I don’t know or understand what information Google has or what they really do with it. And if Google told me, I’d likely not trust them to provide the full story.

Google has a page on its site entitled, “Ten Things We Know to Be True.” It is the lone page in a section called “What We Believe” and among the 1o items, the word “privacy” never appears.

Item #6 “You Can Make Money Without Doing Evil” only discusses advertising standards, not how the company uses personal information it gathers to target advertising both on its own sites and others.

Besides making sure that I am constantly followed by ads for seemingly every website I ever visit, what else is Google doing with its digital representation of me? The ads are obnoxious enough.

  • What’s missing from Google’s messaging

There is a link on the “10 Things” page to Google’s privacy policy, which is easy enough to read but difficult to understand. It makes clear than information that Google gathers about us can be used in a variety of ways.

What it doesn’t do is talk about whether using, say, Google Maps because I am lost allows Google to tell other services where I am. How use of Google services generates information used outside of Google is not clear.

Where’s the Google whistleblower?

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While I don’t consider Eddie Snowden to be any sort of whistle-blower, given all the information he’s released that has nothing to do with spying on Americans, I am all for someone taking on Google.

snowden whistleblowerMany Google users share a deep suspicion of the company, that it is doing something that we’ve agreed to that if we really understood no one would agree to. Or that it is gathering information about us based on what someone else does, like capture a pic with their Google glasses or post a photo online.

How far does Google go to correlate information between different individuals? Might it be using facial recognition on all the photos it indexes? Does it correlate my searches to those of my friends?

If you are in a position to be Google’s Edward Snowden, please go to it. This sort of presumes that Google is doing stuff it wouldn’t do if we knew about it. This may not reach the level of illegality, but the company responsible for glasses with cameras has a strikingly high tolerance for creepiness.

Google will say it offers privacy controls (and it does), but what percentage of users every access them, much less make a change? The company may also respond that this is a complex subject and making privacy simple also means reducing the details. That’s true, but Google needs to be doing more to help users understand all the privacy implications of using its services.

This is where it may take an insider’s “unauthorized disclosures” to get Google to reveal more of its data practices.

…but keep it legal

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Having said that, I am not trying to encourage illegality. Google has powerful attorneys and takes this secrecy stuff seriously. I do not want to have to visit you in jail. However, if there is something illegal going on…

Frankly, I’d rather pay money for Google services than have the company gathering and selling information about me. In the future, the greatest luxury might become being off Google’s grid of personal information.

Google should offer this option — an ad-free, non-tracking Google — that uses information in very specific ways and asks for permission before it does things. No, I don’t want a Google that is constantly asking me what to do, but I also don’t want a Google that holds onto my personal information and shares it with others.

Right now, Google works for its advertisers — they pay the bills. I am not suggesting Google should become a totally paid service, but it definitely should allow customers to opt-out of being sold to advertisers if they are willing to pay a fee for the Google they use.

Curiously, I have never had serious concerns about Microsoft. Partially, this is because I trusted Bill and Steve. Further, I know what businesses Microsoft is in and selling my soul isn’t one of them.

Google has creeped me out since the first moment I heard that “don’t be evil” line. At the time, Google seemed like a benign force bringing me better search results. Yet, any company that has to remind itself to play nice, really doesn’t want to play nice.

If Google had its very own Edward Snowden we might know what Google is really up to. Maybe it would be nothing. But I think if people really knew, they’d want Google and probably a bunch of other data miners stopped. And they might be willing to pay to make this happen.

feature image: ElectronicFrontierFoundation via photopin cc
photo credit: mlcastle via photopin cc

About David Coursey

Editor-at-Large David Coursey is a veteran technology journalist with more than 25-years’ experience writing about business and consumer computing. Contact him at david@coursey.com.