Fast Company

Another Google Fail: Privacy

Yesterday, on Mark Zuckerberg's birthday, Google revealed in its blog that it had stopped collecting data from its street view service because it had inadvertently sniffed and collected about 600 gigabits of data from the open wireless networks of people like me in 30 countries. This came on the same day Read Write Web published an article on the growing number of people who are searching Google for the query "How do I delete my Facebook account?"

 

The full force of the change brought to society by the web is now upon us. The same people who thought "open" and "transparent" were such desirable terms are now freaking out. This genie is out of the bottle, and has been for twenty-five years, since the first attempts at electronic data transfer. And yet only a week ago, I heard Jeff Jarvis, a geek/journalist/pundit on  This Week in Google laugh at Germans for trying to stop Google from collecting street view data in their country.

 

The pundits are as confused as I am about where all this is going. Surely the most dangerous owner of your information isn't a company like Facebook that will use your Yelp authentication to reveal what you thought of a restaurant, or use your age settings to send you a targeted ad. It isn't even Google, who can help you enlarge the view of your cousin's house across the country so you can see his neighborhood. 

 

Sure, you can snoop on friends, enemies, and potential employees with Google and Facebook. So can advertisers. But I'm still of the opinion that it doesn't matter.

 

Why? Because the most dangerous gatherer of information is the entity that has had it all along: the government. When I was born, long before electronic data, I was issued a birth certificate. My parents are gone, the hospital I was born in is gone, but the birth certificate information still exists.  I can get an official copy of my birth certificate any time I want. Same with my Social Security. 

 

We have always been identified to the government at birth, and tracked from birth throughout life. Drivers' licenses, passports, tax forms, bank accounts, insurance records -- all of this is available online. Ditto your medical records. Perhaps YOU can't get them, but they are there, and a skilled hacker can. 

 

Since 9/11, things have gotten worse. We are happy to have cameras throughout Times Square to catch the occasional terrorist, but as it took less than a day to identify him. how long would it take to identify you?

 

My point:  "privacy" has been a myth ever since we came together to live in tribes, and we have been slowly giving it up in exchange for every little advance in technology. Each one of these advances comes with a little sadness and sense of loss, but that sense of loss might be false. You can't lose what you didn't really have.

 

Yesterday, on my birthday, I got greetings from all over the world from friends on Facebook. They are people I've met in foreign countries, people I've met online and never in person, people I have known since high school. Indeed, my brother and my niece and nephew are on Facebook. The joy I got out of hearing from those people was worth the privacy I have given up.

 

But this is an individual decision made by a person in a specific set of circumstances: someone who basically lives for love, not fear, and someone who likes and trusts most people. I realize my self-created world isn't everyone's. 

 

Yet if you are thinking of deleting your Facebook account I still urge you to think twice: Google's ability to "snoop" makes Facebook's look tame. And Google is just a metaphor for search. You can't get rid of this problem by changing search engines. At some point, you have to exercise good judgment, retain a modicum of trust, and go with the flow.

Disclosure: Mark Zuckerberg and I share a birthday and mine was very happy yesterday while his was fraught with threats of boycotts. This post, written by a mother, is designed to make Mrs. Zuckerberg's son and Randi's brother feel a little better.

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