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ICG Risk Blog - [ What if Google bought ChoicePoint or vice versa, part 2 ]

What if Google bought ChoicePoint or vice versa, part 2


Part 1

Google is a classic example of user willingness to exchange absolute privacy for attractive and useful services.

In "No Place to Hide," Robert O'Harrow notes that "personal data has become a commodity that is bought and sold essentially like sow bellies," where commercial firms collect data as part of "consumer relationship management" and private individuals surrender data either unwittingly or for increased convenience.  O'Harrow observes that:

many consumers find it convenient to be in a marketing dossier that knows their personal preferences, habits, income, professional and sexual activity, entertainment and travel interests and foibles. These intimately profiled people are untroubled by the device placed in the car they rent that records their speed and location, the keystroke logger that reads the characters they type, the plastic hotel key that transmits the frequency and time of entries and exits or the hidden camera that takes their picture at a Super Bowl or tourist attraction. They fill out cards revealing personal data to get a warranty, unaware that the warranties are already provided by law. "Even as people fret about corporate intrusiveness, they often willingly, even eagerly, part with intimate details about their lives."

Google and other online search firms have prospered by offering increasing convenience in a world where a lack of data has been replaced by a surfeit of data such that a search capacity to find needed information has great value. In the process, an increasing amount of personal data aggregation is occurring without users' knowledge.

By 2002, Google was collecting 150 million queries daily from over 100 countries, taking "snapshots of its users' minds and aggregating them":

Searches are logged by time of day, originating I.P. address (information that can be used to link searches to a specific computer), and the sites on which the user clicked. People tell things to search engines that they would never talk about publicly -- Viagra, pregnancy scares, fraud, face lifts. What is interesting in the aggregate can be seem an invasion of privacy if narrowed to an individual.

Google can see where it is being used globally in real-time. It knows the peak time for sex searches, each country's usage pattern, what ideas and cultural phenomena migrate globally. It knows that there is a global similarity in the top subject queries: sex, celebrities, current events, products, and computer downloads. Its analysts can presage a decline in popularity of an pop star entertainer by a drop in queries, or "which countries took their recent elections seriously because of the frenzy of searches," giving rise to Google Zeitgeist, a weekly and monthly listing of the top gaining and declining queries. (A 2004 Year-End Zeitgeist offers an international perspective on that year's major events and trends.)

Collusion when and where it suits: While it has escaped the notice of most Google users, groups such as Reporters Without Borders (RWB) have criticized Google for acquiescing to Chinese pressure "for its supposed complicity in government censorship, requesting that the popular Web tool provider pull its news service that excludes content not approved by the Chinese government."

The Citizen Lab tested the Chinese Language Google News filtering, confirming that it was filtering access from China:

"It is actually a form of geolocation filtering since users who access Chinese Language Google News from anywhere but China are not subjected to the filtering and receive full search results."

While the business community would find broad agreement with the comment that Google has "little negotiating power with officials in China [such that] you can't bargain [because] you don't have that bargaining leverage, it's important to find the least common denominator [and] enter the market with that initially," and I suspect that cooption will have little effect on Google's current revenue base, I believe that such comissive behavior on Google's part is a latent issue that could cause trouble as part of a perceived pattern of offenses.

Consider the impact of Google's Gmail to offer authorities a means to learn the "contents of a communication, and [take] action based on what it learns." (Note that there is already precedent that the US government believed that ""interception" did not occur when the computer analysed the packets, read their contents, and flagged them for human viewing [but that] only human reading impacted a legitimate privacy interest.):

Google's plans to run targeted advertising with the mail that you see through its new Gmail service represents a potential break for government agencies that want to use autobots to monitor the contents of electronic communications travelling across networks. Even though the configuration of the Gmail service minimises the intrusion into privacy, it represents a disturbing conceptual paradigm - the idea that computer analysis of communications is not a search. This is a dangerous legal precedent which both law enforcement and intelligence agencies will undoubtedly seize upon and extend, to the detriment of our privacy.

The Gmail advertising concept is simple. When you log into the Gmail to retrieve and view your email, the service automatically scans the contents of the email and displays a relevant ad on the screen for you to see. Although it has been said that neither Google nor the advertiser "knows" the text or essence of the email message, this is not strictly true: if you click on the link to the ad, it can be reasonably inferred that the text of the email in some way related to the advertiser's service.

Moreover, like any email provider, the text of your Gmail is stored and subject to subpoena.

Part 3 Concludes

Goodbye to Privacy
New York Times
April 10, 2005

Google's China Filtering Draws Fire
By Jay Lyman

Google's Gmail: spook heaven?
By Mark Rasch, SecurityFocus
15th June 2004
The Register

Postcards From Planet Google
New York Times
November 28, 2002

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  


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