I have a love-hate relationship with Google. This is a continuation of a blog thread that I started a few years ago. The first part was I Love Google. While some of the products have changed, I still stand by those notes. These notes are true as well. I’ll finish this series with a part 3 on my takaways from these viewpoints within the next few months.
My issue with Google comes down to data collection. Most of Google’s services are free, which means that the product being sold is you. They collect everything that they can about you, and use that information to put together effective marketing campaigns. My issue is that they know a TON about all of us. All of their clever services are designed to keep us using their products so that they can market to us. But, actually, you don’t have to use their services in order to be known by them.
We all know about search, Gmail, maps, drive (aka documents), and their other popular servers. But even if you never used any of those, they have a whole slew of services that they can use to track you. Lets take a look at a few of them. I’ll give a brief description of each, because my point is not to introduce to you new products. I plan to tell you how these collect data about you.
Analytics – Tracks visitors to any website.
Fonts – Quick & easy way for you to include stylish fonts on any web page.
AdSense – Contextual advertising on your website.
Maps – Mapping tool.
DNS – Public DNS servers.
There are literally dozens of others, but this is enough to make my point. Each of these services makes it possible for Google to track you without you ever having to visit their website. Millions of website owners use Google Analytics. If you visit one of those sites, Google sees your visit. They don’t literally know its YOU, but the fact that someone on your computer, from your city, at this time gets recorded. Google Fonts and AdSense are the same, if you visit a site using one of those tools, Google tracks your visit.
So why should you care?
…if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services…
Let that sink in for a moment. Think about all of the sites you’ve visited over the past six or eight years. This profile, combining your search history and all of the sites you’ve visited, definitely is uniquely identifiable. This idea actually came from Steve Jobs, while he was an adviser to Google executives. My source article is no longer available, but Jobs is reported to have said something along the lines of:
You have so many products spanning several services: Search, GMail, YouTube, Maps etc. – why not unite them all under a fluid user experience to both you and your users benefit?
With this much data in a single profile, it is absolutely possible to distinguish you from your neighbor. Think about all of the searches that you’ve made. What story does that tell about you?
Your profile says a lot about you, which makes it pretty valuable. And it can be used in all sorts of ways that you never intended. First, your profile is a target for the Government. This is not new at all. In fact, Google has fought this fight long enough that they have a well defined process for handling government subpoenas. This actually came up again this week, Google is one of several internet companies being mined for data by the NSA and FBI.
The government isn’t the only party interested in your profile though. In 2010 a Google engineer used his permissions to access user accounts and spy on teens. Talk about creepy! Google even issued a statement acknowledging this. And what was the outcome? He was fired.
Google has also been hacked. In December of 2009 a Chinese group hacked into Google to gain access to the Gmail accounts of human activists, as well as companies in the technology, financial and defense sectors. I can’t tell what the outcome of this attack was, but the investigation is apparently ongoing.
To be fair, Google isn’t the only company collecting data about us. Indeed, that would be a long list. Facebook, Yahoo!, Bing and Twitter come to mind instantly. Those are all big companies, there are certainly dozens (if not hundreds) of small companies doing the same thing. Google stands out.