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ICG Risk Blog - [ What if Google bought ChoicePoint or vice versa, part 3 ]

What if Google bought ChoicePoint or vice versa, part 3

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Part 2

In January 2004, Google's Eric Schmidt said the firm's goal was to create a "Google that knows you." Google's Desktop search brings Google closer to its goal of mixing "public and private queries in the future, leveraging its key moneyspinning product: contextual advertising." Google expects users to make private (desktop) queries thereby generating "more hits for google.com [and] more revenue for Google's ad business" by combining personal and web searches.

Potential privacy violations are many: inadvertent indexing of files considered private, personally or financially damaging, information stored in cache to circumvent SSL VPN security, encryption (by recovering the cleartext). Shared PCs on corporate LANs become vulnerable to those working different shifts in different locations

Google's "My Search History" service option allows users "to see all of their past search requests and results" by date/time:

Whenever a user is logged in, Google will provide a detailed look at all their past search activity. The service also includes a "pause" feature that prevents it from being displayed in the index. Users will be able to pinpoint a search conducted on a particular day, using a calendar that's displayed on the history page. The service sometimes will point out a past search result related to a new search request.

The online service is designed to store years of each individual's search activity, although users can remove selected links from their personal archive at any time. Because the history feature requires an individual login, it could help Google better understand each user so it can customize its results to reflect a person's specific interests.

Google's Web Accelerator is designed to improve access to Web pages by serving up cached or compressed copies of sites from Google's servers. Leaving aside yet more security flaws, privacy advocates are concerned about the scope of data collected by Web Accelerator which gives it the ability to "monitor a person's travels across the Web":

"The business they're in here with this new product is market research--they'll be looking at what people are doing on the Internet, what they're reading, what they're buying. There's potentially a lot of information just from the click-stream of the URLs people visit."

I find it interesting that Google has brought back a Web acceleration tool whose popularity was greatest when dial-up connections were prevalent, but much less now for broadband. Yes, it has plausible benefit in that it can mitigate packet loss and can optimize how an object-heavy Web site is compressed and sent to a viewer, but I agree with Ben Edelman's comment that "[It] makes me uncomfortable because it's Google collecting yet more information about everyone and doing it in a way that's not necessary." (Readers not familiar with Edelman's efforts are referred here and here.)

There are many doubters to Google's comments that the Web Accelerator's click-stream data is not associated with a PC's cookie and that Web Accelerator is not a market research tool:

Google states in its privacy policy that it does not share personally identifiable information with use of the software. Still, privacy experts warn that the policy is silent about what click-stream data it collects and what Google does with the information.

As EULAs (end user license agreements) can change quickly and without notice to most users, the matter still remains what Google will do in the future with data already in storage as well as data captured going forward as they make changes in how click-stream data is tied to a Google cookie:

"If you look at Google, this fabulously useful company, they make their money by selling people ads." Besides search, "the way Google becomes useful is in building some model of who I am and what I'm interested in and delivering me ads. That's either really useful or very sinister."

If all of the above search issues stay solely in commercial advertising revenue generation beyond the hands of crackers and governments, Google and its search brethren have an opportunity to prosper without being drawn into the dataveillance dispute. But I think not. To Stewart Brand's "Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive," I would add Information wants to be aggregated.

Spying on the spyware makers
By Declan McCullagh, CNET News.com
Published on ZDNet News: May 4, 2005

Google speed bump draws scorn
By Stefanie Olsen, CNET News.com
Published on ZDNet News: May 6, 2005

Google Launches Personal History Feature
By MICHAEL LIEDTKE
Lycos/AP
20 April 2005

Desktop Google Finds Holes
By Bruce Schneier
ExtremeTech/eWeek
November 29, 2004

Google Desktop privacy branded 'unacceptable'
By Andrew Orlowski
The Register
15th October 2004

Gordon Housworth



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