Is Google Evil?
I’ve seen a number of stories, most recently in yesterday’s Times Online, that describe surprise and fear over what Google knows about its users.
The Times Online headline is “Big Google is Watching You” and the article states:
“Google has an extraordinary amount of information about its users. It logs all the searches made on it and stores this information indefinitely. Because every computer has a unique IP (internet protocol) address, every visit to every website can be traced back to the computer making it — a fact which is well known in geek circles but remarkably under-publicised outside them.”
“Users of Google’s Gmail service, who are already having their e-mails scanned to place targeted ads, have given the company their identity, a full record of all their searches and copies of all their e-mails, stored indefinitely. Users of Google’s Toolbar are inadvertently giving the company a list of not just all their searches but also of every single website they visit. And, as the lawsuit makes clear, all this information is potentially vulnerable to subpoena.”
Maybe I’m one of those geeks that realizes that this happens on virtually EVERY web site you visit.
What’s a Log File and What Does it Look Like?
When you visit a web site, most will keep a log of what information is requested along with the IP address of who requested it. What does the log file look like? Here’s a real sample from the Fight Identity Theft site:
192.168.1.100 – – [29/Sep/2005:09:56:28 -0400] “GET /how-to-report-scams.html HTTP/1.1″ 200 22806 ” http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=how+to+report+a+scam” “Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.0)”
So here’s what this glob of code shows…
- First is the person’s IP address (I changed it to protect the visitor’s privacy)
- The date and time of the request
- What was requested (in this case, our “How to Report Scams” page)
- The referring web site (in this case, the person did a Yahoo search for “how to report a scam”)
- The type of browser being used (Microsoft Internet Explorer 6)
- And the operating system (Windows NT 5.0 = Windows 2000)
This is how web sites work. They collect data and log the data for later analysis (e.g. “How many people visit my homepage?” “What did a person search for to find my web site?”, etc.)
What Information Are You Sharing and Can You Hide It?
So what information are you sharing as you browse the web? ShowIpAddress.com is one of many sites that will show you what a log file can capture about you. The only personally identifiable piece of information is your IP address. That number is assigned to you by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). One way or another that number can be traced back to you as an individual, even if you are surfing during work at a Fortune 500 company or other large organization.
Does that make you scared, angry, or just plain nervous? Maybe it should, maybe it shouldn’t. In either case, you can browse anonymously if you choose.
There are many products and services that allow you to web surf anonymously. Most will route your requests through their servers, thus hiding your IP address. Anonymizer.com has been around for a long time and they provide a service where you can use their site to browse anonymously for free.
But, back to Google…
Are they evil because they log this information? Powerful, yes, because so many people use their services, but I wouldn’t say evil.
When I choose to sign up for a service like Gmail, I know that they will be reading my email content so they can serve up related ads. That’s how they make money. That’s how I can have a 2.5 gigs of free storage for my messages. Yahoo has a similar policy. Same with MSN Hotmail.
When I choose to use Google search I have to know that they log what I’m searching for and analyze it to spot user patterns. The same thing happens at Yahoo and MSN.
I have to realize that sites, like Google, store this information and will use it to improve their product and to make money. I also have to realize that it could be handed over to the government.
This is all part of the trade-off we make every day between security/privacy and convenience. If you are extremely concerned with privacy you probably shouldn’t be using the internet and you certainly shouldn’t sign up for a service that clearly states it will read and store your email messages. If you’re concerned that your search history or email messages could be revealed at a later date you should consider using a product that protects your anonymity, like Anonymizer.
Here’s the bottom line…
When information is aggregated, abuses, information leaks, subpoenas, and profiteering can occur. When it does occur it should be exposed and fought. I just don’t see where Google has done anything evil or different than any other web site on the internet.
Feel differently? Then please append a comment to this story.