Google’s ambition to maximise the personal information it holds on users is so great that the search engine envisages a day when it can tell people what jobs to take and how they might spend their days off.
Longrider is quite sanguine about this development, as is the FT editorial; the service is an optional one, they both argue, and if you don’t feel the need to ask Google for suggestions about what to do next weekend or what job you should take, then there’s no need to sign up for it.
Fair enough, though the FT does add the — to my mind, necessary — caveat that
The underlying principle must be informed consent. This means that information should be used only for the purpose for which it was gathered. In general, this should mean that it is not handed over to another organisation without the user’s express say-so. Even if this stance cannot always be maintained – for example, if a government demands information at the time of a security crackdown – then the risk that the data may be passed on in certain circumstances must be made explicit.
I’m always slightly suspicious of data mining for pretty much the same reasons as is the FT. There’s a surprising amount that can be deduced about you from things like supermarket loyalty cards — I’ve worked for a company, albeit on another project, that helps build the software that analyses such data for the supermarkets’ marketing departments, so I know a bit about this — and you’d be astonished both at how accurate the predictions turn out to be, at least based on take-up of personalised offers and vouchers issued on the basis of analysis of your purchasing habits, and you’d also be astonished at the third parties to whom this information is sometimes sold, and what they can do with it.
I mean, if you were a life insurance company wanting to offer the most competitive rates, wouldn’t you be interested in finding out as much as you can about the eating, smoking and drinking habits of a potential customer? I’m not sure if anyone does that — I’d be a bit surprised, though, if an individual supermarket’s marketing department and its financial services department (if it has one) don’t share information. And certainly HM Revenue & Customs have the power — which they use — to check on people’s spending; if you’re a self-employed painter and decorator who’s being a bit remiss with your VAT, I really wouldn’t advise using a loyalty card at one of the big DIY stores, for example.
Anyway, as I say, I’m a bit distrustful of data retention on principle, and this extends to data retained by search engines. People will recall, no doubt, the embarrassment caused to both AOL and its customers — rather more embarrassing for the customers, I think — when, last August,
AOL’s publication of the search histories of more than 650,000 of its users […] yielded more than just one of the year’s bigger privacy scandals.The 21 million search queries also have exposed an innumerable number of life stories ranging from the mundane to the illicit and bizarre.
While users weren’t identified by name, they were given unique user numbers, so, for example, you can find out that
Based on the number of local searches, AOL user 1515830 appears to be a resident of Ohio’s Mahoning County.
and I’m willing to bet that, when she was conducting various searches on March 9 of last year, AOL user 1515830 didn’t expect them to be made public and was justifiably furious when they were (read the CNET story and see if you don’t agree).
For a bit of light relief, turn to the explanations of some of his Google searches the inestimable Jon Swift thought it necessary to provide when he discovered in January 2006 that Google
fighting a subpoena from the Bush Administration to turn over its data on searches in order to defend the Internet Child Protection Act. Of course, I support whatever the Bush Administration thinks it needs to do to protect children from the Internet and think Google should surrender this data immediately. However, I was looking at the record of Google searches I have done and am worried that there might be some misunderstandings when these searches are seen out of context. So in case Google does lose its case, I would like to take this opportunity to explain some of the searches I did so that no one in the Justice Department gets the wrong idea. As you can see there are innocent explanations for all of them
My worries about this sort of thing were hardly assuaged when I read in today’s Register that
Google has faced down one European probe into what it does with people’s personal information, only to be challenged with another.Last October, privacy watchdogs in Norway, which is not part of the European Union but has identical data protection laws, asked Google to justify why it retains people’s search histories for up to two years. Google refused to co-operate.
Now the Article 29 Working Party, which advises the Justice Directorate of the EC, has asked Google to bring its business practices into line with European data protection law so that it gives due respect to people’s privacy.
The article continues,
The Register understands that Google has been the cause of anxiety among members of the A29 Working Party for some years. Their members, who include representatives of national EU privacy watchdogs, are not pleased about how long it keeps information. The Norwegians were also concerned that Google might be using its data stores to create profiles of people’s lives. This was one question Google refused to answer.Leif Aanensen, deputy director general of the Norwegian Office of the Data Inspectorate, told The Register that it had effectively put its Google probe on ice after the data giant refused to accept that it came under Norwegian jurisdiction.
“We are not satisfied,” he said. “We didn’t get the proper answers.”
“Our main issue was their data retention policy and the use of the data they stored. We asked them what they were doing with the personal data – are you creating profiles – they didn’t answer,” he said.
Anyway, if, like me, you are a bit concerned about this sort of thing, you might like to know there’s a Firefox add-on called TrackMeNot. As the project’s home page explains, along with a lot of rather disturbing background about what the US government is doing, or trying to do, with search engine queries,
TrackMeNot runs in Firefox as a low-priority background process that periodically issues randomized search-queries to popular search engines, e.g., AOL, Yahoo!, Google, and MSN. It hides users’ actual search trails in a cloud of ‘ghost’ queries, significantly increasing the difficulty of aggregating such data into accurate or identifying user profiles.