In Google We Trust?

Posted by Manuel Somohano in Internet, Security

A great number of Internet users in free societies across the globe have trouble remembering a time before Google, especially when a search engine was a nice to have and not a must have — and you could only get your site crawled if you submitted it manually. I remember that well because I had to do it a couple of times. But that’s all in the past. Google has made sure that we don’t go through any work. They give us all we need and what’s better — for free.

There is a saying where I come from, “what’s free ends up costing you more”, but I can see that being a little too extreme for this case. However, there’s another one that’s a permutation of classic quote that says “trust is in the eyes of the gullible.”  The question to ask is, are you gullible?

Let me start by saying this is not a rant against Google. In my line of work, knowing how to use its search capabilities is an essential skill. This is a story of alertness so that once you are done reading you can make your own decisions with some new information. If after reading this you still feel that your privacy is not threatened and you know well how to be the owner of what you don’t say and avoid being slave of what you say, then by all means continue.

What is the issue with privacy?

If you have no idea of what I’m talking about let me give you the thirty second summary. Google and all of its apps are free for end users. Therefore, they are a huge enterprise with tons of money to be invested in development and infrastructure. Where does that money come from? The answer is ad revenue. Yes, everybody has that nowadays so, what makes them so special? Their custom tailored system.

If you use any of the Google applications (Gmail for example), most likely you have noticed the ads showing up above your inbox.  Most of the time the ads change with every click you make into different emails. Even better, the ads seem to resemble the context of the email you receive.

Basically Google scans your emails and sorts through its list of ads and according to that sorting, it present things you might be interested in — like what happens when you order a book through Borders online for example. So, what could be wrong with that, right? I mean, they already scan your inbox for spam. They are just checking it twice like Santa does — but for profit.

The same goes for Google Talk, Voice, YouTube, etc.  It’s an ad driven world, and Google is driving a military tank.

Google talks explicitly about how they go about this and makes all decisions based on the following three principles:

  • Transparency – We provide detailed information about our advertising policies and practices.
  • Choice – We offer innovative ways to view, manage and opt out of advertising cookies.
  • No personally identifying information – We don’t collect or serve ads based on personally identifying information without your permission.

Can they do that without asking me?

Well, here’s where the disconnect starts. They did ask. First of all, you have to accept EULA (End User License Agreement) by either checking a box, selecting accept, etc. in order to actually register to the service. Second of all, you are getting a fantastic software that does incredible things ten years before were not possible and you are not paying a dime. We really are in no position to tell Google not to use our data. Nobody is forcing you to use their applications.

They are really not different than any other company even before the Internet era. They have a huge client database with specific details and sometimes they sell it so others can sell stuff to that particular group. Its how marketing work. Besides, some people actually like it. They enjoy tailored advertising. Even Hollywood thought about the idea in another dystopic future movie back in 2002. Do you remember Minority Report and how cameras could scan your retina, read your details and then show ads that could be relevant to you? Who knows, maybe Spielberg’s second last name was Nostradamus.

Can I do something about it?

There is always a choice. If you don’t agree with a company policy you can always stop using their software. It’s that simple. Of course, if we are talking about an email account that is part of your online identity that you’ve used for years and can’t see yourself parting ways with, yet the thought of tailored ads based on scans of your data scares you like the apocalypse, then there might be another solution you haven’t heard of before.

Google has an option called “Opt Out”, where they allow you to part ways with their collection processes from most of their applications. The top three browsers (Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer), offer a browser installer called the advertising cookie opt out plugin which, blocks their attempts to collect your details. Other browsers need to follow manual steps. Their advertising and privacy section goes into detail about what you can do regarding your information and the collection of data.

The bottom line of this whole issue is that, companies need to make money to survive and grow and ad revenue is the best way to do it. When something is given to us for free we cannot expect to put the rules in place. We can only follow them or find a place where your money decides what happens.