Google Rebuffs Feds on Search Requests

In light of this news-worthy item, my friend Rob asked: Why aren't we upset with Google for having and retaining this information in the first place?

As a techie I can answer this question. All companies collect customer data, and it has nothing to do with privacy. Those records are always considered private data and there are very strict policies and regulations of keeping them as such. The reason why they collect user data (such as IPs, names, etc.) is that: 1) the data are used for aggregation analysis by demographics, etc. IPs, for example, are used for determining geographic or organizational information. They do not, for example, search WHOIS databases and get individual information (name, address, phone #s, social security numbers, etc.) even though they can. I mean, we can even extend the argument and ask why Internet providers keep that information? But businesses have their reasons and none of those reasons pertain to privacy issues. Again, most companies including Google, Yahoo, etc. have strict policies and regulations with regard to these data. Also, a lot of ISPs do not provide individual information -- dynamic IPs, IP masking, etc. At best, all you know is if the person comes from Hicktown, PA instead of New York. But internally, places like AOL could argument track every command you executed and every page you viewed or every site you visited merely by tracking your user account. It's already possible -- the question is, would they do it?

So yes, it's a wide practice. Everyone does that. Do you think your information is not stored on Playboy's database? Do you think when you surf a porn site, they don't already have a record of your IP, maybe even your name and address? They do.

Now cookies and stuff are somewhat different -- I can probably write a whole paper on it. In fact, many people already did. Google them (trying to be ironic here).

I think the issue arises when we consider what the data are being used for. Again, as a techie I can answer that question, at least from my experience. Most companies like Google use that data for market analysis and data warehousing -- their shareholders as well as advertisers require those aggregate data (web traffic, etc.) for everything from demographics to targeted ad campaigns to revenue projections to restructuring. Again, none of these are done at the individual level -- meaning, they don't seek individual information based on, say, IP addresses and email addresses and then send you unsolicited email or postcards. They don't/can't give out that information either.

Google ads make people nervous, too. I mean, how on Earth do they know I want to know more about imported Russian art? Again, it comes down to what data are being kept and how they are being used. Has my privacy and confidentiality been compromised. If you understand the working of how something like Google ads work, then you would feel more relaxed; but if you don't, then you might feel very nervous about your privacy.

One of my clients was a major direct mail company (you can guess which one). They have a huge database -- in fact, 70% of their business was about that database -- names, addresses, phone numbers, income, spending habits, what products they bought, what website they visited... that's their bread and butter so that the next time they can send you ads about lawnmowers because they know you've just bought a house, or a coupon for Red Lobsters because you dined there in the past 3 months.

Is it big brother? I am not sure. It depends on how they use that data, I guess. Again, companies like that guard their data like Coca Cola guards their secret recipes. They literally spend billions on security.

That's why I am nervous about these trends. It used to be that only ISPs and companies have access to this information, of customers who visit their servers. Now it seems like that kind of information is readily available for just about anyone. If you use any time of site tracking services such as Tracksy, you can track IPs and find information of those who came to check you out. So it's not anonymous anymore (unless you use an ISP like AOL).

So the short and long of the story is, companies have been collecting these kinds of data for ages. From the direct mail companies that have been around for over a hundred years, to banks and Internet companies. The Internet might be relatively new, but collecting and warehousing data is not.

So why are people not upset? Because when you go to that website, or when they buy something using their credit cards, or when they apply for a membership, they know that data would be stored -- but they trust that that data would be kept confidential within the company's vault. Institutions such as banks take that confidentiality and privacy issue very seriously, for example.

So it's a trust issue. We trust banks, don't we?

So the issue here is that if people trust Google with their data and their commitment to confidentiality and privacy, then Google goes ahead and hands that information to the government (let's assume they do), then that trust is broken. There is no way I am going to go to Google and search for "How to make a bomb" or porn anymore. I think that's the main reason why a place like Google is fighting the Feds because once consumer confidence is lost, they business would suffer. It's all about perception.

There's still a question of what and why the Feds want these data? If they just want aggregation, Google has already done all the work. They can already give information such as how many people from Hicktown, PA visited in the last 3 months. But I don't think that's what the Feds are asking. So what exactly are the Feds asking, and what are they going to do with the data? I think that's why people think Big Brother.

The common concern is that even if the Feds are not requesting personal information tying to these data (search commands and sites visited), since the information is readily available in the company's database, will the Feds ask for those in the future? What's to stop them from doing that next, in the name of "war on porn"? Is there any cause for paranoia?

I think that's where the emotions come from. We just don't know.

But is it worthy losing hair over it? Probably not, at least not until the Feds start doing exactly that, and I think we'll sure hear about it. If that happens, how many hells do you think will break loose?


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