The More You Use Google, the More Google Knows About You
From Google Search to Google Earth, every move you make can be tracked by some feature of Google -- and intelligence agencies are drooling over the data.
Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute / By Christopher Ketcham and Travis Kelly
In June 2007, Privacy International, a U.K.-based privacy rights watch- dog, cited Google as the worst privacy offender among 23 online companies, ranking the “Don’t Be Evil” people below Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, eBay, LinkedIn, Facebook and AOL. According to the report, no other company was “coming close to achieving [Google’s] status as an endemic threat to privacy.” What most disturbed the authors was Google’s “increasing ability to deep-drill into the minutiae of a user’s life and lifestyle choices.” The result: “the most onerous privacy environment on the Internet.”
Indeed, Google now controls an estimated 70 percent of the online search engine market, but its deep-drilling of user information — where we surf, whom we e-mail, what blogs we post, what pictures we share, what maps we look at, what news we read — extends far beyond the search feature to encompass the kind of “total information awareness” that privacy activists feared at the hands of the Bush Jr. administration’s much-maligned Total Information Awareness program.
Kevin Bankston, a privacy expert and attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group engaged in questions of privacy, free speech, and intellectual property in the digital age, warns of the possibilities. “In all of human history,” he says, “few if any single entities, other than the National Security Agency, have ever possessed such a hoard of sensitive data about so many people.” This is the sort of thing that should make the intelligence agencies, says Bankston, “drool with anticipation.” And drooling they are. Stephen Arnold, an IT expert who formerly worked at the defense and intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. and who once consulted for Google, addressed this in a speech before a conference of current and former intelligence officials in Washington, D.C., in January 2006.
According to an audio recording in our possession, he reported Google was increasingly sought out by the U.S. intelligence services because click-stream data — and everything else Google archives — “is a tremendous opportunity for the intelligence community.” Google, he said, “has figured out everything there is to know about data-collection.” The relationship with the government had become intimate enough, Arnold said, that at least three officers from “an unnamed intelligence agency” had been posted at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. What they are doing there, Arnold did not reveal.
“We don’t comment on rumor or speculation,” said Google spokesperson Christine Chen. When asked separately how many former intelligence agency officials work at Google, she responded, “We don’t release personnel information.”
The conference, under the aegis of the Open Source Solutions Network, was hosted and organized by Robert David Steele, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who left the agency 20 years ago and is now the founder and CEO of Open Source Solutions Network Inc., otherwise known as OSS.Net, an educational corporation that has worked with more than 50 governments to “advance the use of open source intelligence.” Steele considered Arnold’s item to be a bombshell. U.S. intel was now seated in the heart of the “Googleplex,” learning all it could from the masters in the private sector.
Among Google’s critics, Steele who, since leaving the CIA, has spent 20 years promoting the digital commons, is about as fierce as they come. “Google would have been an absolutely precious gift to humanity,” he says. “But Google is positioning itself to take over the digital commons. I personally have resolved that unless Google comes clean with the public, the company is now evil.” The question today is whether Google, in fact, will be forced to change its ways — and whether Congress and the intelligence agencies want it to.
Google’s powers of data-collection depend on consumer choice — how much of your computing you put in Google’s hands. The more you choose Google applications, the more Google can know about you.
At the extreme end of the spectrum, your every move can be tracked by some feature of Google. When you use the Google search box, as tens of millions of people do daily (with Google handling roughly 11,000 searches per second), the company can track all your search queries and the websites you visit as a result of those queries.
If you use Google toolbar, the company can watch the amount of time you surf a website — the three minutes or three hours you spend on every page of that website. With Google’s acquisition of YouTube in 2006, viewing habits can be tracked. Google’s FriendConnect and Orkut archive your social networks. Google News, Books, Feedburner or Blogger log your reading habits. The writing you produce is stored on Google Docs, and your purchase habits and credit card numbers are captured by Google Checkout.
Also gathered are voiceprint and call habits, through Google Voice; travel interests, patterns and place associations, through Google Maps, Google Earth and Google StreetView; medical conditions, medical history and prescription drug use, through Google Health; photos of friends and family, through Google’s Picassa images; and general activities, through Google Calendar.
Then, there’s Google Desktop, which, at one point, offered what appeared to be an innocuous feature called “Search Across Computers.” This allowed Google to scan your computer to archive copies of text documents. In other words, just about everything on your PC — love letters, tax returns, business records, bad poetry — was duplicated on a remote Google server. (This function was discontinued on all platforms in January of this year.)