Of Google and privacy

by coelomic

“Nec vixit male qui natus moriensque fefellit.”
(Not a bad life is that of one who is born and dies in obscurity)
– Horace, Epistles, I, 17, 10 (c.20 BCE)


Anonymity provides a mechanism by which an individual may render their actions free from observation, and thus protect the privacy of their actions.
The notion of privacy has been discussed at least as far back as Aristotle (384–327 BCE), who defined the separate spheres of public life: ‘polic’ (polis, city) and private life ‘oikoc’ (oikos, home).

The growth of the Internet has increased the use of anonymity and pseudonymity in electronic communications. How can Internet users preserve the benefits of privacy while fighting the abuses of a few anonymous and pseudonymous people? In the real world, identity resides in the ways that an individual is recognised and held responsible for her actions; in cyberspace, identity is potentially just a user-ID. Social psychologists have found that anonymity can contribute to deindividuation — a state of loss of self-awareness, lowered social inhibitions, and increased impulsivity.(1)

Internet users are becoming increasingly concerned about what personal information they may reveal when they go online and where that information might end up. one often hears about companies that derive revenue from personal information collected on their web sites. Companies such as Google use keywords in our communication to target ads. Information you provide to register for a site might later be used for telemarketing or sold to another company. Seemingly anonymous information about your web-surfing habits might be merged with your personal information. Small programs called cookies are specifically used for the process.Web sites use cookies to gather information about users, but disabling cookies prevents you from doing online banking or shopping at some web sites. Some companies such as Google have cookies that store your personal data for a really long time, in the case of Google until 2038!

Most of us find it difficult and time-consuming to read and understand privacy policies or to figure out how to request that the use of our personal information be restricted. It is a trade off between usability and privacy. We have accepted the fact that free content can be got only by including ads to pay for that content and that content has to be targeted to your tastes. Its a giant marketplace. Privacy concerns are making consumers nervous about going online, but current privacy policies for web sites tend to be so long and difficult to understand that consumers rarely read them. Same is the case with a lot of software installations as well. Not many people read the EULA. Some companies don’t even bother to inform users what data they gather and how they use it.

Now whan it comes to Google things are a lot different. With their stated purpose of collecting all the world’s information which may also include your data if you have had a semblance of an online life, it is a worry when all your online activities are laid open for perusal by a third party. Of course you can always decide to not use search engine services, but the usability of the internet is severely restricted in such a case. See my earlier post on search.

In the past week, Google has been all over the news for refusing to share its user data with the Department of Justice (while Yahoo!, MSN and AOL have complied with the request)

It is a worry that three of the major search engines have handed over user data. The data handed over apparently does not contain user traceable content, but its only a matter of time before some authority requests such data in a differnt context. Kudos to Google for standing up to the DOJ.There seems to be a blase attitude when it comes to respecting online privacy. Is it because it circumvents the normal interaction and the societal niceties involved in asking people for their personal information, is a matter for debate.


(1) – – Anonymity and Pseudonymity in Cyberspace:

Deindividuation, Incivility and Lawlessness Versus Freedom and Privacy
Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the
European Institute for Computer Anti-virus Research (EICAR),
Munich, Germany 16-8 March 1998
by M. E. Kabay, PhD, CISSP
Director of Education
International Computer Security Association

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