Why Google is Creepier than a Nosy Neighbor

546I know I am in the minority here but Google is creepier to me than a nosy neighbor.

How could I have such a crazy opinion about Google?  Let me explain.

Google is tracking and recording just about every bit of personal usage data they can get.  It does not matter if you have a Google user account or not.  Even if you have never logged into Google, they have been smart enough to create a unique account to store your personal usage data.

The personal user accounts that Google maintains for every person can keep track of what computer you use, your geographic location,  what you have searched for, what websites you like to visit and much more.  They can store this data even on people who have never created a Google account and think they are using Google anonymously.

  • Do you remember when you researched your child’s lice problem?  Google does
  • Do you remember last Valentine’s day when you searched for some private adult items?  Google does
  • Do you remember which months you search for diets aids and which ones you search for chocolate?  Google does
  • Do you remember searching for a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting?  Google does

At least with a nosy neighbor you can close your window curtains to stop them from seeing what you are doing.  It is much harder to stop Google from collecting and storing this data.  Let’s say you are going to uninstall the Google Toolbar that the factory shipped your computer with and never visit Google.com again.  It is estimated that Google’s tracking code is installed and collecting data from about 30% of all websites online.  Imagine if your nosy neighbor was collaborating with 30% of the houses on your block to track and record everything you do.

Google has a good reason to be tracking and recording this data.  MONEY!  Google can be more profitable by analyzing you and showing you more relevant ads on Google.com and the millions of websites that form their ad network.  In general I am okay with improving relevancy because it helps users and advertisers. My problem is when the pursuit of better relevancy overrules many privacy considerations.

In case you have searched for vacation home rentals and then visited an automotive website that showed you ads for vacation homes and wondered how that happened – you can likely thank Google’s Adsense program.  Or if you bought some adult diapers online and then visited a cooking recipe website and saw adult diaper ads showing, you can again thank Google for tracking your personal usage data.

As much as I enjoy adult diaper ads appearing on totally unrelated websites,  I do not feel comfortable with Google tracking personal usage data.  The risk of having just anyone see my personal information or my family’s information is creepy and scary.

How can anyone see this information?  AOL has already accidentally released the usage data on 650,000 human beings.  That information was able to be traced back to users including a retired lady in Florida who was researching some slightly embarrassing medical conditions for her friends.  Google can also make a mistake like AOL’s and release information.

Even if Google is infallible (because we all know large corporations never make mistakes),  the data is not safe because Google has already been hacked.  Google is a huge target of hackers.  I would guess that they face a hack attack about every second of everyday or about 2.6 million attempts in a month. The odds are some of these security attacks will be successful.  Recently a Chinese hacking attack was able to defeat Google’s safeguards.  The hackers accessed and downloaded information on many human activists which was supposedly being kept safe by Google.

Let’s not forget human nature – because Google does employ thousands of people with different levels of security access.  What’s stopping one of these Google employees from going to work and stealing the data to resell it.  How valuable do you think having all of this usage data for hundreds of millions of people is?  It would also be a great way for a disgruntled Google employee to hurt the company with millions of innocent individuals being stripped of their privacy.  By the way that Chinese hacking attack is suspected to have been helped by an internal Google employee.

This is not a new issue.  For over 10 years there have been many articles written about online privacy including this very informative one by search industry leader Danny Sullivan writing about Google privacy concerns in 2003.  Yet most people are still unaware or just don’t care about online privacy.

Some people may not care because Google does not intentionally attach your name to your usage data file.  With a little bit of analyzing you could probably figure quite alot of personal detail from these numbered usage data files.  Have you ever searched for your name in Google?  Or your relatives name?  Have you ever searched for directions and always used your home address?  Have you ever entered your credit card number accidentally into the search box instead of the checkout page?  All of that information has been captured.  With a bit of analyzing it would not be hard to figure out your name, home address, credit card number and possibly even your social security number or anything else you have typed into the search box either intentionally or accidentally.  That potential exposure is way creepier to me than anything my neighbor could make me feel.

What can you do? Start with being more aware.  You really do not have any privacy online.  What you do online is being recorded and the odds are good that whatever you do online will eventually be revealed. With the supercomputers that are becoming more and more common it will not be hard to analyze the “anonymous” data usage and track them back to individuals.  Happy websurfing!