Determining whether or not Google or any other service provider is wrong to watch or track you is strictly a personal matter between you and them. The outrage many people have about being tracked or watched is not necessarily directed at Google or Facebook but at other parties with whom they never agreed to share this information and who don’t have any business acquiring it.
If and when you elect to use the free (and generally excellent) services offered by Google, you agree to the policies and conditions that they put forth in their Terms & Conditions (T&C) and End User Licensing Agreements (EULA), you know, the small print.
They offer the usage of their programs for little to no cost, and you, in exchange, use them to your heart’s content when you:
- Send emails from Gmail.com;
- Text and chat with Google Hangouts;
- Cheat traffic with Waze;
- Find directions to your next job interview with Google Maps;
- Read up on the local bar in Google Reviews;
- Say, ‘OK, Google’ to activate voice search to look up health related issues symptoms at Google.com.
None of these things are bad, and each of them serves a specific purpose in your life. Google became the super power they are because they offer amazing services while delivering high quality content along with top notch customer service – they are setting the standard for how to be a successful company.
What many people forget is that Google is a company out to make money just the same way that Ford, Starbucks, and Target all do. It’s easy to lose sight of this when you don’t hold something tangible in your hand; you can forget that there is a product being bought and sold. The product here is you.
By compiling all of your searches and ‘likes’, scanning your incoming and outgoing email, collating your travel history and YouTube views, Google builds a data profile for each user that they then sell to advertisers. It’s why you end up seeing tents from REI being advertised in your Gmail account sidebar after emailing back and forth with someone about an upcoming camping trip.
We, as consumers, sign up for this. Hopefully we do so with an ‘eyes wide open’ sense of understanding, but even if we don’t, it’s still on us. Or, rather, it’s on you and Google and any other company whose services you elect to use.
After seeing how easy it is to use and rely upon services such as these, people tend to forget that we live in a society where the least governed among us, namely the government, disregards our personal privacy interests. In the name of ‘security and safety’ there are laws passed, rules made, regulations declared, orders decreed, findings discovered, warrants obtained, taps enacted, and traces established that monitor the information being exchanged by people who are under no suspicion of illegal activity.
When you send a letter to someone via the post office, you expect that letter to arrive at its intended destination unmolested. Likewise, when you check your mailbox and find a letter or package has been opened or tampered with, you instantly have a sense of your privacy having been violated. Why would we feel like this? Because our private information has been viewed or accessed by someone unknown to us and who was never granted permission. It’s no one’s business other than your own how much your electric bill is, what you write in a letter to your child who is away at camp for the summer, or the legal approach you and your attorney are considering for an upcoming child custody dispute. Those matters are personal and private and no has the right to view or access them without your permission.
Yet that is exactly what happens when government (foreign and domestic) forces companies such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Facebook, Apple, and many, many others, to grant them access to your information. Through secret courts (FISA), gag orders in local courts, interpretations of the Stored Communications Act, and legal theory-wrangling such as the Third-Party Doctrine, your information is being accessed and stored without your permission. This is happening without your knowledge and even when you have done nothing wrong or are even suspected of wrongdoing.
Having discussed the companies whose services you use who monitor your electronic lives and sell it for a profit, and having talked about state-level actors who watch and monitor your electronic communication, it’s time to talk about a third uninvited party: hackers.
It’s hard to log onto the internet these days without noticing an article about it somewhere: Yahoo! security breaches, Target customer credit card data compromises, LinkedIn password and username dumps…the list goes on and on. Again, it’s easy to just glance at it momentarily and move on to the next subject, but have you considered how many electronic accounts you have? One? Two? Ten? Fifty? When you consider the number of online applications that ask for sign ups or permission to use other accounts, it’s easy to lose sight of how many places and businesses have your private information stored within their databases.
As a thought exercise, take a few moments to think of all of your electronic accounts. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
The question that I like to ask people here is whether or not you trust them all. You may trust Google to keep your account information safe, but do you trust all of the others? The local gas station where you sign up with your Google account in order to get monthly coffee weekly perks? The local photography studio who offers a discount on your child’s school picture package when you enroll in their online membership forum? We share, share, and share again, and it becomes so easy to lose sight of the fact that we have no idea with whom we are sharing our information. You don’t know what their security policies or protocols are and sure don’t know how good their database security is.
To bring the discussion back around to Google and whether or not they are watching us, I can say this: I use Google on a daily basis, as do many others who are concerned with privacy and personal information security. In doing so, I fully recognize that Google is a company who is out to make a profit and they are capturing information about me through my searches and usage of their systems. Is it wrong for them to do so? I can’t answer that for you, but I know that I don’t necessarily like them to know everything about me or my family.
To limit our data being shared with those we do not know and who have not been invited to view our personal information, I take steps to minimize our exposure by using a variety of search engines and browsers accompanied by security-minded add-ons and extensions. I also encourage others to use alternatives to Gmail, Google Drive, Waze, and other similar services offered by companies such as Google except for very purposes and only in superficial ways.
How do you limit your exposure? It’s up to you to examine what you need from an online service provider and what you are willing to give up in order to obtain it. In the coming days and weeks, I hope to share with you some of these tools and techniques to help you become more security conscious.