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Privacy Concerns Raised Over Google Services

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Google is one of many online service providers that have taken a good deal of flak recently because of privacy concerns. Unfortunately, legitimate concerns seem to be lost amongst a pervasive misconception of privacy issues in a digital world. This is typified in the delayed reaction to the Google PhoneBook.

Web sites that will reverse a phone number and give you the physical address have been around for some time. Before the Web, there were printed directories and the ubiquitous phone operator. Similarly, Web sites that provide driving directions replaced AAA and good old fashioned maps.

50 years ago, it was only moderately difficult to find out where a person lived and how to get to their home address starting with their phone number. Five years ago it was relatively easy to accomplish the same task by visiting a few Web sites. Two years ago, when Google rolled out the Google PhoneBook, combining all these tasks into a single interface, no one looked up.

One year ago, people started to notice. Messages began circulating, warning people about the Google PhoneBook service. The first of these messages coincided with the advent of Google watch dog sites, most of which were formed by jilted marketers whose sites had recently dropped in ranking on the main Google search.

Despite more reasoned analyses of search engine privacy concerns, alarmist headlines like "Is Google too powerful?" proliferate the media, old and new. As always, lack of understanding breeds fear -- and fear only clouds important issues.

In some ways, the Google PhoneBook is the result of 50 years of lax or nonexistent privacy laws in a telecommunications boom. It's also the result of an increasing demand for convenience. Convenience and privacy often seem mutually exclusive.

However, it's fairly easy to have your name removed from the Google PhoneBook: just fill out a form on the Google site. Better yet, request that your local telephone company not publish your number. Of course, that will cost you more -- and that's the real tragedy.

To be fair, the Google PhoneBook and similar services lower the barrier to entry. The O'Reilly book, Google Hacks even describes the processes of crawling the Google PhoneBook and scraping the addresses. Scraping is the process of extracting information from a Web page. In this case, the authors of the book have written a program which submits phone numbers to Google and extracts the addresses from the resulting Web page.

Again, the information is all public. Google has just made it more accessible -- more convenient. However, more recently, Google may have really mis=stepped in debuting their new GMail service.

Google rolled out a Web mail service similar to MSN's Hotmail. However, unlike Hotmail, Google plans to offer 1 Gigabyte of free space. Amidst the initial fervor, people overlooked the fact that Google planned to make money off the service by scanning customer's messages and delivering relevant ads.

To further complicate the matter, the GMail privacy policy claims, "residual copies of E-mail may remain on our systems, even after you have deleted them from your mailbox or after the termination of your account." When asked about whether or not the identities of GMail users would be tied to the searches they performed on Google, Google co-founder Larry Page replied, "It might be really useful for us to know that information. I'd hate to rule anything like that out."

GMail isn't the only service that trades free e-mail for ads. Hotmail and Yahoo have been using this model for some time. Further, both services have been plagued by privacy concerns and mishaps. Most recently, Yahoo changed their "Opt-Out" policy yet again. Yahoo's new privacy policy extends past Web mail and searching and into phone calls and junk mail.

The core offenders are the telephone companies, credit bureaus, and other "old world" institutions who collect and share personal information. The Internet is merely the latest medium by which companies like Google, Yahoo, and MSN are enabling the greater and more expedient distribution of that information.

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