by CIO Staff

Google Wrestles with Privacy

Nov 28, 20053 mins

An “Editorial Observer” column by Adam Cohen in today’s New York Times ponders the growing tension between Google’s two core operating principles: first, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”; and second, to turn away from all wickedness, summed up in the corporate motto, “Don’t be evil.”

Fretting about Google’s imperial ambitions is a semi-hot preoccupation in part because of the high-minded values and goals of founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. And the axis on which much of the fretting occurs is that of privacy.

As Cohen notes in his lead, during a North Carolina murder trial, the defendant’s Google searches were offered in evidence by the prosecutor. Though the search strings were gotten from the defendant’s home computer, they could as easily “have come directly from Google, which — unbeknownst to many users — keeps records of every search on its site, in ways that can be traced back to individuals.”

Google has lived up to its reputation, Cohen writes, “as a force for good in the technology world.” But he believes the company ought to “do a better job of including users in decisions about how their personal information is collected, stored, and shared.”

In particular he faults Google’s use of slow-expiring cookies (in force until 2038, the article says) to track and store data on personally identifiable searches. The collected data is thus available to any government agency that comes knocking with a warrant or subpoena. Furthermore, “Under the Patriot Act, Google may not be able to tell users when it hands over their searches or e-mail messages.”

CSO Senior Editor Scott Berinato wrote last spring about the privacy implications of Google’s innovative forays into the aerially visible portion of global information (see “A Map to Your World”) . Google Maps and Google Earth make it possible, wrote Berinato, to connect “locations to the logic of its text searches, so that, for example, when you type in my name you get my place of work, even if you didn’t search for it.”

Berinato observes that search capabilities of potential high interest to, say, a stalker might greatly trouble a CSO worried about preventing workplace violence. “Privacy is now in a territory long inhabited by security,” says Berinato. “Something isn’t a real problem until you can actually feel it. Until Katrina, for example, nobody seemed to notice or care about FEMA’s deconstruction. I think it will take a major privacy event, as dramatic as somebody dying, before people perk up and think seriously about privacy policy.”

Last summer, Google itself proved sensitive on this point. When an enterprising Cnet reporter used assorted Google resources to dig up — and publish — a good deal of personal information about CEO Eric Schmidt , Google was not amused. As punishment, it made Cnet media non grata for a year.

By Lew McCreary

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