From the New York Times Editorial Observer: “What Google Should Roll Out Next: A Privacy Upgrade.” Nothing that new here for those who follow the privacy implications of Google, but it’s good that attention to the issue is broadening. Here are some highlights:
The government can gain access to Google’s data storehouse simply by presenting a valid warrant or subpoena. Under the Patriot Act, Google may not be able to tell users when it hands over their searches or e-mail messages. If the federal government announced plans to directly collect the sort of data Google does, there would be an uproar – in fact there was in 2003, when the Pentagon announced its Total Information Awareness program, which was quickly shut down.
Google says it needs the data it keeps to improve its technology, but it is doubtful it needs so much personally identifiable information. Of course, this sort of data is enormously valuable for marketing. The whole idea of “Don’t be evil,” though, is resisting lucrative business opportunities when they are wrong. Google should develop an overarching privacy theory that is as bold as its mission to make the world’s information accessible – one that can become a model for the online world. Google is not necessarily worse than other Internet companies when it comes to privacy. But it should be doing better.
Regarding Cohen’s belief that “it is doubtful [Google] needs so much personally identifiable information,” it seems clear to me that they’re using the data to move toward the “perfect search” – a search engine that is personalized, predictive, and relevant (especially in regards to advertising). That’s why they “need” the data. But Cohen is correct in calling for stronger privacy policies, especially since we don’t know how long Google’s “don’t be evil” mantra will last.