Eight reasons to fear Google

Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil”. So is it?

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While researching and writing this article (hypocritically using Google, you might argue) my computer crashed a number of times, got a virus and had to be shut down until further notice. Just saying…

In their 2004 founders’ letter, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google revealed a newly coined company motto. Three little words that the company insists have defined it, acted as a central pillar to their ethos, and reminded the world of its altruistic intentions.

Those words? “Don’t be evil.”

It’s a heroic banner that sounds more Star Wars than star business, but the general idea was always to put users first. Google gained the trust and respect of users by cultivating this mantra and appearing, to all intents and purposes, to eschew corporate money-grabbing and simply make our lives easier with its services.

Bingo. Billion dollar business. Wool. Eyes. Over.

“This ‘don’t be evil’ mantra. It’s bullsh*t,” announced Steve Jobs at a conference at the beginning of 2010. Sure, the late Apple boss was fuming over Google’s move into the phone market with the launch of Android, but maybe he had a point.

Google and Apple used to be chums. Google CEO Eric Schmidt was on the board of Apple for three years, and it’s a common Valley rumour that they had a pact not to poach each other’s staff.

Cue hostility between the Valley’s biggest players. Jobs may have had his reasons to fear Google, given its advance into Apple’s core business markets. But what reasons do we have to fear Google?

Let me break it down for you.

1: March 1st – New privacy policy

As of March 1st 2012 Google is changing its privacy policy, meaning that information about you garnered from Google’s many services will be kept together, building a rather accurate profile of your behaviour.

Google will be collecting info on the things you search for, your email activity, places you look up on Google maps, the conversations you have on Google+ and the videos you watch on YouTube.

If you are an Android user and have signed up to Latitude (the app that maps your location at all times…for your friends, you understand) or use Google Wallet (app that stores your credit card details and allows you to pay by tapping your phone) you will be handing over even more data. Where you went, what you bought, who you told about it.

“Google has built a very lucrative company on the reputation of user respect,” said Mat Honan for Gizmodo. “It has made billions of dollars in that effort to get us all under its feel-good tent. And now it’s pulling the stakes out, collapsing it.

“It gives you a few weeks to pull your data out, using its data-liberation service, but if you want to use Google services, you have to agree to these rules.”

There is a counter argument that Google is simplifying the privacy policy so that everybody better understands how data is being used.

“Google’s latest move improves clarity,“ argues Ben Humphry, the UK director for Predictive Behavioural Targeting company nugg.ad.

“We have a better understanding of how they intend to use our data – clarity is important in this industry, it is essential that we are transparent about what data we are using.”

Tell that to the members of the US congress and EU regulators who demanded answers from Google, having found issues with the new policy.

2: WiFi time

When Google started photographing neighbourhoods around the world as part of Street View, it equipped its vehicles with antenna as well as cameras. That meant it could create a database with all the names of Wi-Fi networks and the coding of WiFi routers.

The breach of privacy was only discovered after a German data protection authority demanded an audit. Google claimed it was an accident. “It is now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open wifi networks, even though we never used that data in any Google products,” a spokesperson at Google blogged.

The Google-mobiles had already collected about 600 gigabytes of information between 2006 and 2010.

3: Medical insurance

The investment arm of Google, Google Ventures, has ploughed money into all sorts of start-ups, but has most recently started to invest in the medical industry. Which seems a bit off-brief for an internet search and advertising company.

Google’s recent move to back genetic testing start-up 23andMe received some strange looks, mainly because the company was founded by Sergey Brin’s wife. Brin came under fire for the move because the investment was used, in part, to pay off loans made to the company by Brin personally.

But what might be even more interesting is Google’s portfolio of medical research investments: a total of five. How long before Google gets into the health insurance market?

You can see it now. Someone makes an insurance claim, having been informed by their doctor they have bowel cancer, with all the crippling costs that can incur. But Google, which now owns or at least partners with the insurance company, says: “You had symptoms last year; you searched ‘blood in stools’, emailed your friend and told them you were concerned about your health, and didn’t act. No insurance for you.”

We’re not saying this is all written out in Google’s business plan. We just think it’s strange it is entering the medical sector.

4: Reality versus Google reality

People who believe they are being presented with all of the information when searching on Google are wrong. It’s Google reality not real reality.

Google tailors search results based on user behaviour. Sites you often use appear first, relegating the chances of discovery. You will continue to live in your Google bubble, most probably unaware, convinced that the options you’re given are the best, most recent, relevant ones. They’re probably not.

Said Google bubble is actually referred to as “the filter bubble” and was coined by internet activist Eli Pariser. It guesses what you want and gives it to you.

Eric Schmidt had this to say back in 2010: “With your permission, you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches. We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

That’s quite frightening.

With roughly two billion searches conducted on Google every day that’s approximately two billion “thoughts” collected. A day. When it comes to online seaches, Google has 64 per cent of the market in the US. That’s a lot of data. But in the UK, it has 90 per cent market share. Nine out of 10 UK citizens feed Google their information.

What does Google do with this information, other than use it to sell advertising? Well, The Wall Steet Journal reported in October that the US government obtained secret court orders to force Google Inc to hand over information from email accounts of a WikiLeaks volunteer.

What’s next? Court cases built on a defendent’s search history? Do we need to seriously think twice about what we type into that search field?

What’s more, Google can also completely erase people or companies it decides it doesn’t like anymore. Having deemed that BMW had breached its terms by influencing its Google results ranking in 2006 through means Google didn’t approve of, Google reduced BMW’s ranking to zero. Bye bye BMW.

More recently, hacktivists Anonymous recieved Google’s cold shoulder when their Google +, Gmail and AdSense accounts.

If all reference to me disappears following the publishing of this article, I do exist.

5: “Don’t be evil”

The premise is simple enough, but think about it, what is evil and who decides? With Google’s power to effectively delete people, this is an important point. The world isn’t black and while, we aren’t storm troopers and Jedi. Founder Schmidt has been questioned on this point before. He responded: “Evil is what Sergey says is evil.”

That’s Sergey Brin, the other Google founder. But what makes Brin the oracle of evil, the great badness-barometer by which the world’s biggest search engine is held to account?

“29-year-old Brin, in his role as Google’s conscience and head policymaker, spends his days gripping the moral tiller - and in so doing, imposes his worldview on everyone else,” as Josh McHugh wrote for Wired.

Hmmm.

6: Google +, minus reality

Deflating your filter bubble further, Google altered its search in January of this year to give greater prominence to Google+.  

The backlash was swift and sharp, especially from other social networks that saw their Google ranking diminished.

That’s even less options for us to make an informed decision from. And an obvious move to push users towards Google+.

But Humphry believes Google’s transparency on this matter should relieve them of heavy criticism: “I think it’s reasonable providing Google is clear about how their search works. If I got a service that wasn’t online, I wouldn’t expect it to be without an agenda. This is how business works – there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

So it would seem.

7: Gmail snail trail

The use of Gmail has become prolific over the past five years or so. Most of us have an account. But do you realise that each email you send could be subject to scrutiny by the people at Google HQ?

Big Brother, ahem, Google is watching you. What you write in your emails is not a private matter. For starters, as many people know, email content is searched and used to tailor ads, built for your specification to follow you around your internet life.

The editors of Google Watch have commented that the processing of email message content on Gmail goes beyond proper use. Google has insisted that emails are never read by humans, only scanned by computers.

It’s a point hammered home by this Microsoft video.

Microsoft's Gmail Man

8: Street view, a glimpse too far?

Where would be without Google Earth? We wouldn’t be able to show ours friends our childhood home whilst sitting in a different country. We wouldn’t be able to visualise exactly where we are going to when we search for an address on Google Maps. And Google wouldn’t be able to capture people on camera who don’t realise they are being watched.

Just check out this picture story by The Guardian. What starts off as quite beautiful and intriguing quickly becomes unsettling when you realise the power of street view.

No more getting changed with the curtains slightly open.

The point is that Google is not only showing us the information out there. It is creating its own information. The Google brain is growing, sucking up all of the information from our world and storing it one melting pot. The sheer omnipresence is frightening.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Anonymous

    There seems to be an element of scare mongering here but there are also some good points. I'm not sure that people realise the extened to which their actions are followed on services like Google. Something to keep in mind...

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