Thursday, June 21, 2007


This article orginally appeared in the 6.21.07 edition of Metroland.

Like most people, I like Google. My browser opens to Google’s news page, I do dozens of Google searches every day. I trust Google, I like the company’s goal of accumulating all the world’s knowledge for easy access by anybody, and if Google’s making any money off of me, it sure isn’t coming directly out of my pocket. I’m in favor of Google’s library project, where it’s digitizing the world’s great libraries; I love its recently acquired trouble-maker, YouTube.

At the same time, there’s a lot about Google that’s starting to scare the bejesus out of me. The company’s mission statement says things like “You can make money without doing evil,” and that’s all well and good. I suppose you can. But there’s an inherent conflict between that statement and any corporation’s fundamental, overarching goal of maximizing its shareholders’ wealth. Mission statements are nice, but corporations have no souls, no consciences. They’re money-making machines, and only as altruistic as their boards, acting for the sole benefit of shareholders, allow.

And even if the corporate mission stays pure, the goal of accumulated information is starting to run smack into our traditional ideas of personal privacy. If Google can know everything and post it on the web, it can know and post everything about you.

For instance, Google holds on to your search information. Ostensably, this information is used to refine its search engines, to help direct targeted advertising (which is one reason it looks free to the rest of us), and to prevent fraud and abuse; it’s also held in response to increasing governmental pressure for search engines to hold such information for purposes of “data-mining” or at the very least, something to look at pursuant to a search warrant, i.e., the Feds’ snooping on you, on the off chance you’re thinking about blowing up a bridge or something.

If you use Gmail (I don’t, and won’t), then Google has all your emails. If you use all the new on-line apps, where you can do all your word processing, spreadsheets, and everything else using Google servers instead of your own computer, Google has everything you generate. And now Google is acquiring a company called DoubleClick, the cookie generator that for years has been tracking your online activities and selling that info to advertisers. So Google will have a mass of information about not only what you’re done with Google, but with everybody else, too.

If this sounds scary, it’s because it is scary. Think about what a profile of your internet browsing history says about you. Now think about what might happen if that information winds up in the hands of strangers. Now do the same with your emails, IMs, and most anything else you do on your computer. Gather all this up in one place, and you have not only a lot of your stuff, but a remarkably accurate roadmap of your brain.

And all this stuff is one bullet-proof subpoena or one killer hack or hostile corporate take-over away from seeing the light of day. Yikes is right.

Various theorists observe blithely that traditional notions of privacy are going to have to give way to technological advances, and people are just going to have to get accustomed to it. But it seems to me that people ought to know what they’re giving away before it’s gone, and of course that’s just not happening. It’s possible that you’re reading this and thinking “holy moley,” or perhaps something a little more colorful, because you’re hearing about this for the first time in plain English. And the reason for that is because Paris Hilton and Hillary’s new campaign song are more important than your privacy, at least as far as the media’s concerned.

Privacy has always been a difficult subject with people. The combination of “I haven’t got anything to hide” and the notion that privacy is a shield for illegal or at least unseemly behavior always rattles the gates of your right to be you, without surveillance or interference. And, obviously, every time the Department of Homeland Security announces that it has heroically snared some hapless losers who think they’re gonna pose as pizza-boys and shoot up an Army base, everybody thanks their lucky stars we’re all being monitored.

Throw into the mix, Bush, Gonzalez, and especially Roberts, Alito, and Scalia, and it’s enough to scare you off the internet entirely. But that’s not gonna happen, because the internet has become as important to our basic ability to function as breathing.

Maybe it’s time to reread Huxley and Orwell, to pay attention, and start watching the watchers. If only we weren’t all so busy.

And you really wanna freak? Go to Google Maps, zoom in on a big city, and click on a street. Go ahead. Maybe you’ll see somebody you know.


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