Note to Google+ – Our privacy is more than a toggle

With the recent release of Google+ tech geeks are all in a frenzy trying out the site, documenting its every change, and comparing it to the reigning champion of social networking, Facebook. One of the main topics of discussion has focused on Google’s take on privacy, something its predecessor has continuously been attacked for, and in most if not all cases, the attacks were warranted. Facebook, and founder Mark Zuckerberg, have thus earned a reputation for poor communication of changes that affect privacy, and overall manipulation of user settings to mirror Zuckerberg’s philosophy on social sharing of information. The number of times and the consistency of such changes have left a bad taste in many Facebook user’s mouths, and have paved the perfect road for a challenger. In steps the juggernaut, Google, an icon and master of the Internet, but so far a failure at making their products social. In fact Google has had its own issues with privacy. In 2010 Google released the unsuccessful (yet still around for some reason) Google Buzz, which automatically set up followers based on email and chat behavior, and then shared those followers with the whole world.  Prior to that Google tried to change how we collaborate with the release of Google Wave, also a decent size failure, but something that may later get characterized as too much too soon, and not due to a lack of trying. With its latest foray into the world of social networking, Google+ has taken great strides to convince the millions of new users that they care about privacy. They have done this by providing almost all features within Google+ the ability to restrict viewing and access (minus your profile photo that seems to just exist forever until you swap it out with a new one), and have made doing so very easy with simple to use toggles.

On the periphery, privacy nuts can rejoice in knowing that Google has stepped in and made our personal data safe once again with Google+, and have levied a massive blow to the evil corporation-y, Facebook. Meanwhile, though Google has been very interested in searching and indexing Facebook and Twitter data, and in early 2010 released another failed attempt with the introduction of a Social Search feature. This cat and mouse game between Facebook and Google has been going on for quite some time now, but with Google+ it seems Google is no longer playing with Facebook, and has chosen to more appropriately take them head on and crush them.

We can now feel secure knowing that Facebook will no longer have control over our personal data to manipulate and sell to advertisers, but the benevolent Google will steer us into the future of social networking, by keeping that data private. Well, not really private, you know cause it all gets stored in their cloud, but only Google has access to that data, and its not like advertisers can use it. Ok, well maybe there will be advertisers, but only those Google will suggest to you based on your data that they are collecting….forever. Wait, so maybe your data is private to others, but not to Google, and maybe Google can use that data to sell you stuff, but not by selling your data, just suggesting it. Its not like Google has any other important data on you. Oh wait, I guess I do use Google search to find everything I am interested in on the Internet, including videos and maps, and ok so maybe when I am logged into Google they are tracking my usage directly, and when I am not, by an IP address that can map to my location and identity, but its not like they know everywhere I go on the Internet. Oh yeah I do use Google Chrome though, so I guess yeah they do know every site I visit on the Internet, but its so damn fast! It’s ok though, its not like they know who I associate with. Darn, I mean I do use an Android phone so now all of my contacts and their personal contact data are in my Gmail account. So I guess along with knowing what I search for, where I go, and who I associate with, they also know what emails I send, what things I say in Google Chat, and oh yeah I forgot I use Google Voice so they know every message anyone has ever left me, and possibly what I say on the phone. Hmmm also now that I think about it, with Google Latitude every location I move with my phone, and Google Picasa has all of my photos of family and friends, and those photos have been scanned with facial recognition software to actually know who is in the photos! Wait hold up! Ok so maybe Google knows a lot about me, but its not like they know what I’m thinking and what all of my friends and family are thinking?

Well… that I think about it more, with Google+ I guess if everyone uses it, that means everyone’s thoughts and inner dialog will be in a stream. That stream will be stored in the Google cloud, even if those posts are private between me and say my girlfriend, so Google will have all of my social data stored along with my behavioral and personal data in the cloud. Yeah, but I mean I click on “accept the terms” each time, so I am allowing them to track me and all that I do. They are only doing it to make a smaller planet and allow people to connect easier and find information faster, right?

Alright, so the tongue in cheek approach is getting old so let me spell it out in plain English. If Google+ becomes successful, and users adopt all of these great Google products that make our lives easier, Google will control every aspect of you virtually. They hold the key to who you are on the Internet, which is where people spend a lot of time nowadays, and will spend more in the future. Your general proclivities, your friends, your enemies, your thoughts, your photos, your music, your everything will be with Google in their servers spread out around the world. Their motto is “Don’t Be Evil” so maybe we don’t have to worry about the future of our data at all. 😉

This is the crux of the problem that Google needs, actually must, understand about your privacy. I don’t distrust Google. I love it as a company, and I believe in their underlying ideologies regarding ease of use and access to the world’s knowledge. However, Google will not be around forever, but your data will be.

All of the data that Google has amassed is more than J. Edgar Hoover could have amassed if he was alive for 100 years and had an FBI the size of China. The power of your data that sits in Google’s cloud has enormous human rights implications. You cannot see the world as it is today, but you must view the world in all of its possibilities at all times in the future. If you accept that your data is fine as you have nothing to fear, then what happens when the laws or rules change? Maybe its due to massive political changes, or cultural changes, how might your data be used against you in those cases? If we were to round up all of the Japanese citizens again, as was done during World War II, do you think it may be easier or harder to do that now? Let’s say you are (insert religion), (insert sexual preference), (insert political preference), (insert you get the idea). Do you think it would be pretty easy to determine those things based on your data that Google stores, and do you think if any of those things fell out of favor with say the Government in power at the time, that they couldn’t use it or seize it if need be?

Once you understand the power it holds you must demand Google protect your data at all costs. If you accept that Google will always exist, and that it will always live up to its motto of good, then don’t worry about it, you most likely wont be affected anyway as you may be dead by the time it mattered. However, if you understand the ramifications of not just your data, but all of the other human beings on this planet’s data, being controlled and stored in one company, you must demand its safety. Your data is a key to you and that key is as powerful as the keys used to ignite a nuclear bomb.

My note to Google is simple. Know you are the stewards of our data, and protect and put in place the necessary measures to protect it against not just others, but yourselves, now and in the future when there is no Google, or when someone or some entity tries to abuse that power that may not adhere to the “don’t be evil” motto. The privacy and responsibilities of Google are enormous.

You may be thinking what can I do? Do I stop using the Internet altogether? No. That’s silly and would go against all of the other massive positives that Google and the spirit of sharing is doing to change our world. This is no dooms day stuff here, but it is something you should be cautious of enough to know that when you see legislation being passed that may help safeguard your privacy pay attention to it. Know that the possibility exists that your data may be used against you, so be smart in what you post, join, contribute to, etc. Also be aware that your kids and their kids will have even a greater challenge in keeping things private in a world of open sharing. In general don’t go through life assuming every thing will stay the same and as long as you have nothing to hide you’ll be fine. It hasn’t and never will. Every decade citizens lose more and more rights to various “safety” initiatives, that either keep you safe from terrorists, your car, your home, your products, you name it. Every time you lose one you will never get it back. Your data is out there forever, and at a minimum could be used one day to simply deny you a job, and you would never know why.

So what of me? I will continue to use Google+, because I am a huge fan of Google, and all that they create. However, know the dangers, and demand not just the “evil tyrant” Facebook protect your data, but demand that Google protect your virtual identity as well. Facebook doesn’t even come close to owning you, and the things that make you tick, like Google does. Remember data lives forever, laws and rights do not.

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