Today’s announcement of Google Desktop Search 3 and subsequent press release from the Electronic Frontiers Foundation warning people not to use it if they don’t want the contents of their computer mirrored at Google has sparked some very interesting debate.
GDS3 offers a new feature which allows you to find information stored on all your (Windows) computers no matter where you are on the internet. And, if I’m reading things right, you can view your documents wherever you are too.
The EFF is warning in its typically alarmist fashion that “Google copies your hard drive — Government smiles in anticipation.”
They have a perfectly valid point of course, but a commenter at Slashdot makes a reasonably persuasive counter argument: “The thing about Google is they make no attempt to hide the fact they are collecting a tremendous amount of data about people and people let them. If you don’t want your information stored by Google, you don’t opt into any of Google’s services.”
Funny how that’s exactly same argument used in relation to gambling, drinking and other vices. Is Google getting us addicted to convenience at dangerous expense to our privacy?
A subsequent post points out another excellent point that crossed my mind when I heard that Dell had signed a mega-deal with Google to preconfigure its PCs with Google software (including pointing all searches towards Google by default, of course). Dell customers don’t really get to ‘opt-in’ do they? (Though Dell could concievably make the Google software an ‘opt-in’ on its system configurator form or on the PC’s first boot, it seems unlikely.)
The coverage set me wondering about what Google does know about you. Google has rapidly been expanding the services that are linked to a single Google login. A quick search of the web turned up that as long as you use a few Google features (Gmail, Google Toolbar and Perosonalised Search, for example) Google gathers the following about you:
- The complete contents of your desktop PC including email and documents
- Every web site you visit, when, how long for, how often
- Your address and credit card number
- Your mobile phone number
- Your interests, stocks you own, political interests (through Google News searches)
- The content of all webmail messages you send through Gmail (including messages you thought you’d deleted … Google retains them for up to 60 days)
- The content of all webmail messages you send TO anyone with a Gmail account (even if you don’t use Gmail yourself)
- How much money you earn through Google Adwords
I’m far from being a privacy alarmist, but it is disturbing to think how much information is being stored in one place about you now by a private company. Under the veil of new anti-terrorism laws, governments around the world including Australia, the UK and the US, could gather extraordinary intelligence on citizens very easily by legally compelling Google to disclose it without notifying users.
AS AN ASIDE | MediaConnect’s Phil Sim has some interesting thoughts on this on his blog … that global access to all your documents takes a bit of bang out of the Web 2.0 bomb. His argument: the main benefit of online word processors, spreadsheets, etc is online document storage. Google has just neatly sidestepped the whole sheebang.
He reckons the Web 2.0 advocates will now have to think well beyond their existing models and invent new ways for multiple people to collaborate on documents. (Yawn, there’s the old ‘collaboration’ furphy again… software vendors have been hyping this since the dawn of computing and it still fails to excite most computer users, or be understood by them. Maybe Phil’s onto something, maybe not.)