Google is watching us

Google has been powering almost all search queries for an eternity in internet years. It knows an awful lot about what we all search for. And they keep pushing into new ways to index data and mine the activity of people.

It started out pretty simple:

  • Public content on the web (web page)
  • Search queries
  • Websites viewed as a result of search queries

And they kept adding individually trackable data on:

  • Google Groups (including the entire known history of Usenet)
    • posted content
    • activity patterns (who responds to whom, etc…)
  • Analytics
    • tracking visitors to enabled websites, including data about where they are, what they do on the site, how they found the site, and what they click on
  • Advertising tracking
    • every page that serves you ads. and how you got there. and what you did there. and where you went afterward.
    • Adsense
      • if you put adsense ads on your site, they have your banking info as well.
    • Doubleclick
  • Google Alerts – search queries that you care enough to subscribe to.
  • GMail
    • all messages you send or receive
    • contacts
    • connection info when using other protocols (POP, IMAP, SMTP)
  • Google Talk
    • chat data
    • contacts
    • activity patterns (chat status, times active, locations, etc…)
  • Google Calendar
    • calendar data
    • contacts
      • who has access to shared calendars
      • who is invited to your events
    • subscriptions
      • what calendars do you subscribe to?
      • who subscribes to your calendars?
  • Google Contacts – your addressbook. everyone you know.
  • Orkut – professional social network (if you’re Brazillian…)
  • Google Docs
    • document content
    • contacts and activity
      • collaborators
      • viewers of published documents
  • Maps & Earth
    • your location via GPS, cell, IP location, etc…
    • searched locations
    • customized maps (paths, locations, notes, areas of interest)
    • directions (from, to, method of travel)
    • Street View
      • image of locations
      • data sniffed by camera vehicle
      • WIFI hotspot location matching
    • Satellite view
  • Google DNS
    • every server your computer contacts, on any protocol, including the time, location, and IP address of your requests.
  • Bookmark sync
  • Tasks
  • GReader
    • subscribed feeds
    • activity
      • read items
      • starred items
      • shared items
      • time and location of user activity while reading feeds
    • people you follow, and what they do
    • people who follow you, and what they do
  • Feedburner
    • Everyone that subscribes to a blog powered by Feedburner
      • who they are
      • where they are
      • what app(s) they use to read feeds
      • matching other sites of interest to those subscribers
  • News
    • sources of news read by a person
    • news items read
  • Picasa Galleries
    • photo data
    • geolocation (time and place of photos)
    • contacts (invited to view photos)
    • face recognition (are you in a crowd photo somewhere?)
  • Translated content
    • pages translated
    • source and target language(s)
  • Online video (Google Video and YouTube )
    • content uploaded
    • activity
      • views
      • searches
      • comments
      • contacts (subscriptions, etc…)
      • faves, playlists, etc…
  • iGoogle Gadgets – which gadgets and data sources are grouped together? which ones used most often?
  • Google Desktop
    • searches (for Google query lookup)
    • usage data
  • Google Books
    • which online books you read
    • which parts of these books you read
  • Google Notebook – content of notes
  • Google Wave (if anybody used it)
    • content
    • activity
    • contacts
    • other apps and data that you integrate
  • Buzz – wtf is buzz, anyway? but they index whatever it is…
  • Google Checkout
    • purchase history – merchant, item, price, time and location, etc…
    • credit card info
  • Google Health
    • medical history
    • hospitals and clinics you’ve used
    • prescriptions
  • Android
    • where you are (location data sent by phone)
    • what apps you have
    • who you call, and who calls you

And now they’re adding:

I’m probably missing a bunch of stuff. Much of this is pretty innocuous. Much of it is opt-in, or voluntarily contributed. But the sheer scope and scale of the managed data, and the widely varied sources of the data, make it potentially possible for some interesting connections to be made. Sure, much of it is claimed to be anonymized, but there’s not really any such thing as true anonymity.

What is to stop Google from connecting the dots to say “show me a list of people who have searched for ‘alternative medicine’ who have visited an out of country clinic, have a history of cancer, and have searched for ‘google jobs’ and ‘insurance plan’?

My point is, if any government agency proposed tracking this level of data on individuals, there would be (should be) riots in the streets. At the very least, it would be a high profile election issue.

But, we just accept it. Google makes things easy, so we just ignore what’s going on. People complain about the “evil” of the iPhone App Store, because fart apps are not approved. But we then ignore that this much data is being systematically collected on us, by a company that chants “do no evil.”

This isn’t meant as a paranoid “the government is keeping aliens in area 51, and cars that run on water, man. WATER!” post. But there is something big going on, and we’re complicit in it.

Update:

Oh, and they get private user data from social networking sites through advertising, without user’s consent . Nice.

24 thoughts on “Google is watching us”

  1. If we were living in 1940s Germany, and I were a Jew or any other non-wanted mintory, I know that with the technology like Google they have today they would have absolutely no trouble no only finding me but figuring out perfectly “legitimate” ways of convicting me as an American of a felony.

    Every American commits 3 felonies a day, how many does Google watch you commit that can be used against you if your are deemed a political scapegoat or a non-wanted person because of your race, beliefs, opinions, sexual orientation, etc: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471504574438900830760842.html

    1. What I don’t get is that google says they’re about freedom, but they’ve built up the largest, farthest reaching surveillance system ever devised. That’s not about freedom. It’s tyranny. And we’re oblivious of it.

      1. Tyrants are always good at using rhetoric… and people, the vast majority, easily fall for it… The philosophers have taught us nothing.

  2. If we were living in 1940s Germany, and I were a Jew or any other non-wanted minority, I know that with the technology like Google they have today they would have absolutely no trouble not only finding me but figuring out perfectly “legitimate” ways of convicting me as an American of a felony.

    Every American commits 3 felonies a day, how many does Google watch you commit that can be used against you if you are deemed a political scapegoat or a non-wanted person because of your race, beliefs, opinions, sexual orientation, etc: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471504574438900830760842.html

    You could easily design an algorithm to detect felonies then make a nice list that you can match up against names of dissidents or minorities or whomever was getting in the way of your power; regardless of how corrupt that power may be.

    Further, I would seriously recommend that if you’re a minority or a dissident that is under potential persecution by the media and power you make plans to leave the country and move somewhere else if anything happens. For instance, if this economic mess continues Americans might be tempted to elect someone from the Republican party who is tyrannical; more so than Bush.

    There is too much power concentrated in the hands of the few who have no qualms about using it. Further, they may find themselves in a hairy situation where the economy keeps collapsing, jobs continue decreasing, and further problems develop because of environmental problems and infrastructure problems. The Americans apparently are about to take a hit on their credit rating too in the next 4-8 years. In such hard times, it’s easy for a dictator to rise to power and appoint a scapegoat and attempt to take over the world for the greatness of the nation. Further, they have no sense of morality other than to consolidate their power and maintain it… This is an alarmist view; and a pessimistic one at that, but if you are a minority in the path of this, better to be safe than sorry and have an exit strategy in case things get hairy and you need to book it. We don’t learn from history.

  3. My point is, if any government agency proposed tracking this level of data on individuals, there would be (should be) riots in the streets.

    If they proposed that level of unsolicited tracking…

    I knowingly give Google that info about me. Now, you’re welcome to say that’s a stupid thing to do — I’ve questioned it myself at times — but it is my choice. That’s the difference. When Facebook changed their privacy terms to make what was once promised to be private now public, I removed that information. They gave me the choice of have it public or don’t have it, so I chose not to have it.

    Oh, and we complain about Apple’s App Store because so many fart apps are approved, when apps like Google Voice aren’t, not because fart apps aren’t approved. :)

    1. you willingly/knowingly give Google some of the data they track about you. I completely forgot about all of the Adsense/Doubleclick tracking. That you can’t opt out of or have histories deleted.

      I see this kind of invasive tracking of me (and every other user of the internet), as being FAR more important an issue than what stupid apps get approved (or not) into a company’s store.

        1. All you have to do in order to protect your privacy from us is just install this little piece of software on your web browser that tells us not to track you. Again, just because the people using Goog analytics is not seeing it does not mean Goog is not storing it. But Goog is not evil, so that just means you can trust Goog with every single website that you visit to make sure it reports to Goog that you visited that website and that it should not be tracking you.

          It’s sort of like the government were to install spy cams everywhere then give you a tracking bracelet and tell you, hey if you wear this the cameras won’t record where you go. We promise this will work, because we’re not evil. Trust us…

    2. Russ, just because you removed that information doesn’t mean anything. Very much like Google, Facebook keeps a copy of everything you do and if the information was there once, they have access to it and will do with it what they see fit.

  4. If you visit any of the porn “tube” sites, which apparently are in top-100 sites, Google also knows what sort of porn you like as well. Now you would think hey I can avoid this but you can not. If you don’t have Javascript enabled you are not allowed to watch any of the videos. Many of these sites also report your location to Google; I actually checked the source and saw that it was actually reporting the IP, page, and it’s guessed location to Google. If the site you use uses reCaptcha, again you don’t have a choice, every time you login Google is watchching you. Many sites using Google to host their javascript libraries are being watched by Google. Google gives all these people these people the appearance of privacy, but that just means that it is not using all the data in a way that is visible to you. If Google wanted to whip out everything that it knows about you and make that apparent to you, I think people would be a lot more concerned than they are now. People have reported having their entire history being tracked over multiple IPs using flash LSO… So yes, Google makes you think you give it this right, but you really don’t have a choice. Just like facebook when Google tells you its deleting anything, what it means is, it is removing it from your view… Not that it’s actually disappearing. But people are obvious.

    The little benefit of including a javascript, a captcha, a font, free dns, makes any idiot web developer fall for the little benefit in return for giving up the user privacy. You tell them this and they will beat you over the head with Google is not evil!!!

  5. And trying to disappear from Google’s gaze would be virtually impossible without leaving the web altogether.

    When I read about Google phony stance with regards to Chinese government malfeasance a few months back, I pondered what it would take to stage a personal Google boycott. I’m not even talking about leaving the index, just keeping my stuff and interactions off of their services. I was quickly overwhelmed, it makes the Facebook account deletion process seem downright straightforward.

  6. Oh, regarding “if any government agency proposed tracking this level of data on individuals, there would be (should be) riots in the streets. At the very least, it would be a high profile election issue.”

    Who’s to say they aren’t partnering with Google already?

    Don’t hold your breath waiting on the riots. This ain’t Greece, and my dog Dexter sure as hell ain’t Kanellos. You can’t get even get professional techies that work at universities to stop gushing about Google and Apple… (Along those lines, why you felt compelled to diminish Apple’s control freakery to ‘fart apps’ in an otherwise very compelling post is a mystery to me.)

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I return to singing songs of Kanellos, the only one among us who can claim to have any integrity in these corrupt and depraved days of decline: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FTaVgqSiIk

    1. the Fart App crack was overly simplistic, but the point stands. Apps in a store don’t affect our personal freedom. Google tracking a million different things about you, in a way you have no real control over, is a huge issue that directly impacts the personal freedom of every person that touches the internet.

  7. We need a new Stallman for the web… And Stallman regrets the life that he lived, tells you something about what one has to do in order to attempt to move a cause forward… only to find the game has changed at the end.

  8. Okay, so I get that in a Big Brotheresque way all this information can be used for tyranny. What if though, instead of selling/using the system they just opened up the aggregated data for everyone to see? Would smart people not be able to use it to destroy a lot of the tyranny enacted upon us at the moment?

    1. heya, Andre. Sorry your comment took so long to show up! It got flagged as Spam by Big Brother Akismet…

      opening the aggregated data would just create a different kind of tyranny. those who had the means to stay offline, would do so (or craft separate identities as needed). the rest would have no privacy at all.

      1. I actually think his idea is really good. It would make everyone see what Google knows about you and maybe do something about it… Rather than be lambs led to slaughter.

  9. BTW, this is what Google wants to do. They want to know every little thing about you and then pimp you out to their advertisers. Like hey you want D’Arcy’s attention because he likes Apples and you have a neat little App that you want to sell him? Fine. That will be $10.00 please.

    http://www.scripting.com/stories/2010/01/02/theMotherOfAllBusinessMode.html

    That’s their business models. I personally think if anyone should be pimping me out, it’s myself. I will keep all the information and I will pay a small broker free to introduce me. I keep $9.00, broker gets $1.00 for doing the matching. I don’t need pimps, I am not a hooker.

    1. This is the original article that goes into depth. The point is the same, in the world driven by greed with an underlying machiavellian / Nietzschean morality, all data is retained and rhetoric is employed to confuse people. Governments which follow the same morality see this as a good way to gain control over citizens so they remain quiet. Let us hang ourselves.

      http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2326/2156

      Now we need to fight for: ” data portability and deletion rights for consumers”. I think deletion rights are very important going forward with strong legal safeguards.

  10. One more thing you need to be aware of. Currently everyone is buying up android phones. They store this information in the cloud. Google goggles sends images to be analysed in the cloud. Soon Google may have pictures of pretty much everything from these phones. Your friends. Inside of your houses — which it already has if a realtor puts your house for sale. Your possessions and so on. Every single little spot on the planet may be pictured at one time or another by an android phone and sent into the cloud. Data centre boom in SF is from this sort of behaviour. Hoarding tons of data about every little aspect of everyone’s life. With no hopes of escape, ever!

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