I just watched an interesting video about Google and the various markets they have (and/or might have) a finger in. According to the video, Andy Graves, CEO of Intel, says Google is a company “on steroids” with “a finger in every industry”. I’m not sure that the “steroid” analogy is a good one, and the video seems to embellish the facts to make its point, but there is some interesting stuff in here. For example, it was news to me that Google has a venture capital arm and that some of its earliest investments were in biotech and healthcare. I also didn’t know that they are trying to get into generating the electricity needed to power their broadband plans.
I often discuss with others what the privacy implications are of a single company doing all they can to obtain as much information as possible about the “real” me, not just the “me” that I allow into the public domain. According to the video, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, recently said:
“If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” – Eric Schmidt, CEO, Google
This appears to suggest that the default position is that by doing something at all you make your actions public, shareable, sellable and exploitable.
But that is not the way governments treat information, so why should a private, profit-driven company? For example, in the UK the Data Protection Act 1998 places heavy restrictions on how personal data can be used. “Personal data” is defined widely, as “data which relate to a living individual who can be identified (a) from those data, or (b) from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller [etc]” (section 1(1)). This is a really broad definition and there is nothing to say that the information has to be private in order to be protected; in fact, before information can identify an individual it will usually have to have at least some element of publicity about it.
But even aside from any legislative regime, you don’t need to think too hard to see that the “maybe” in Mr. Schmidt’s statement has to be a very big “maybe”: the person photographed on Google’s Street View entering a clinic to be treated for a condition of which no-one else is aware; the person who has GMail correspondence with their legal adviser; the friends who exchange messages of support on Buzz over a partner’s infidelity; the desire to let courtship flourish between the two of you alone.
With something like 97% of Google’s revenue coming from the sale of adverts for use within their products, they have a strong financial incentive to finding out not just what our peers and social groups like, but who each of us really is as an individual. And they have plenty of means by which they can start building a profile: cell phones (Android); web browers (Chrome); social networking (Buzz, YouTube, Picasa); and email (GMail), to name their most popular products. Privacy issues have been raised with various governmental bodies about Google’s activities and what they do with the data they hold (never mind the implications of simply holding that much data when it could be hacked by an outsider or sold by a rogue employee). In some cases these enquiries are ongoing, and sometimes they go nowhere (and it’s helpful to always keep an open mind when any public entity is the subject of criticism).
The video (which, ironically, is hosted on YouTube) is below. Have a look and see what you think. I’ll post some concluding comments underneath.
As I mentioned above, I do think much of this is exaggerated. But even from a theoretical point of view, two things might be of interest. The first is such a large company, with the power to lobby government (as Google has been increasingly doing), adopting the attitude put forward by Eric Schmidt in relation to the things which I simply “do”. That’s not to say that they are doing anything illegal; it’s just an attitude that I’m not at all comfortable with (and, in case you’re wondering, I don’t have an Android phone and I don’t use Chrome).
The second thing is, actually, a bigger deal, and it’s this: Google’s not the only company with an interest in finding out who we are. They make the headlines as the poster / whipping boy for the search world, but other companies do the same thing (albeit perhaps not in so many areas all at once) and no-one seems to notice that…
So where does that leave ordinary people like you and me? For a start it leaves us with a lot to think about. But one thing is certain: we must acknowledge that whether or not we use a paricular technology, others do, so that everything we say and do and every interaction we have with others has the potential, within a very short space of time, to become information accessible to anyone anywhere in the world.