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Tag Archives: online privacy

Google knows a lot about you, but is that a bad thing?

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Google’s a company with an interesting history. It rode into prominence in the early part of the previous decade, largely on the back of a search engine — something that in itself was already a highly commoditised entity — that worked more quickly and effectively than the competing search engines of the day. Google isn’t without competition in the modern market — Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo!’s search engines being the most prominent examples — but for many folks, Google is search.

In case you’re wondering, Google doesn’t just offer up search results for the fun of it; the vast bulk of Google’s income comes from advertising that hangs off the search results. Google got to where it is partly because its search results were good, but also because it could offer tailored and unobtrusive advertising that paid out; if you got ads in your search feed that were relevant to your interests, you were more likely to follow them up, and therefore everybody benefits — at least in theory.

Google also isn’t, according to one of its famous early promises, evil. To be precise, one of Google’s early company mottos exclaimed “Don’t be evil”, so that while you were handing over lots of information to Google in return for free search services — and later other offerings ranging from office software to calendars to social networking — you could rest easy that the company wasn’t trying to be evil, and your private data was safe and secure.

At least, that was the theory. Recent online uproar against Google has focused on a couple of Google’s most recent alterations to search and to its privacy polices. Firstly, in the area of search, Google’s started to give more prominence to results given a +1 mark through Google’s own Google+ social network. That’s a policy somewhat rife for abuse, but what’s got a lot more folks concerned are changes to Google’s privacy policies due to hit on the first of March. The full details of the new policy were announced on Google’s official blog here.

Google’s main product might be search, but a single Google account can link to RSS reading, email, calendar, documents, photos, YouTube and a plethora of other sites and services. Previously all the information within the bounds of one Google site stayed where it was, giving your data and preferences a certain quantity of relative anonymity. From March 1st, Google will start collating the data from one service against each other, building up a much more comprehensive profile of who you are and what you do than it did before. Technically speaking, Google already had all this information (or as much as you chose to give it); its new policy makes it explicit that it’ll leverage this information across all services. Google’s spin on this is that it’ll lead to a simpler overall Google experience, but there’s reason to be wary. Google’s sitting on an information goldmine — one perhaps not just relevant to simple advertising — and it’s one that users have largely handed to it for free. Cross-collated data in one single place also represents a tasty vector for attack by cyber criminals, although here at least we can hope that Google’s defences are good. Actually, given that an individual user can’t do much to improve Google’s security, that’s all we can do — hope that it’s up to the task.


What does privacy mean for you online?

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There’s been a recent storm of protest regarding the revelation that Apple’s iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) store the location of accessed mobile phone towers and GPS signals for a twelve month period on the devices themselves, and then, when synchronised back to your PC, store them as part of the backup. The issue here is twofold; firstly, that the data collection’s been done with little notification to the end users. Secondly, that it’s trivially easy to use the synchronising computer to read all of this information; in short where you’ve been with your device over the last year.

The first point is largely one of interpretation; Apple maintains that there’s mention of location services in the lengthy end user licence agreement (EULA) that you click through whenever iTunes needs an update or you buy a new iOS device. You know the one; the one that virtually nobody stops and reads because it comprises dozens of pages of near incomprehensible legalese anyway? In any case, switching off location services isn’t quite enough; an iPhone or iPad will still get a rough read from nearby mobile phone towers if you’re using 3G data anyway.

The second one is something that is becoming all too common, and it’s something that many of us give away for free in any case. Apple’s lack of security regarding the database on your host PC is a worry all of its own, but plenty of other companies make money — and some make their entire income — from the kinds of personal information that devices and services ask us to reveal. If you’ve used FourSquare, or have a Facebook account, or use certain Google services, there’s an immense amount of data tracking going on. Facebook’s particularly notable, as its defaults for many services, including the “places” facility that indicates exactly where you are at a given point in time are to allow all sorts of data display and data mining, all in the name of delivering advertising to you. Google, likewise, does collect data from Android smartphone devices, but states it does so anonymously. Still, again, Google likes having data on preferences, and again it’s to do with delivering advertising.. for now.

Quite how this kind of thing hits you will obviously depend on your own personal preferences as well. Highly extroverted types may enjoy broadcasting every little detail of their lives, whether it’s location details via FourSquare or personal thoughts via Twitter, while those of a more introverted nature, or those with either a reason to stay somewhat incognito (for better or worse reasons, whatever they may be) will be naturally wary of any kind of data collection.

So what’s the solution? There isn’t a simple way these days to fall off the radar of everybody all the time (and only the most introverted would want to), but it’s certainly worth thinking about how you use online services, not to mention mobile broadband services, and what that data usage says about you. If you’re uncomfortable with that data being available to others — not necessarily broadcast public, but undeniably recorded — then careful consideration of your technology usage would seem wise.


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