Written by: steve ross on May 2nd 2012
Recently, I've become more concerned about Google as a company. In particular, in Google's collection of user data. In fact, I switched the default search engine in all my browsers to Bing (of all things).
Why Am I Concerned About Google?
Both Facebook and Google have faced very public scrutiny about their collection and use of user data. That begs the question, "why would Google cause me more concern than Facebook?" In a nutshell, it's the reach of Google. I'm not saying that Facebook doesn't get a ton of information about users, but the average user interacts with a Google service for (among other things):
- Photos (via Picasa)
- Email (via Gmail)
Each of these interactions carries a fair amount of private information. For example, Google uses location information to "increase the relevance" of searches. So if I search for "hot dog stands" and I am in Los Angeles, I will get a completely different result set than if I do the same search from the same computer in a hotel room in Philadelphia. That means that Google knows where I am, but didn't ask permission to gain that information. And this is even more pervasive on mobile devices, where location services are frequently accessed but little is disclosed regarding the use of that information. Yes, a map is more relevant if the "you are here" coordinates are known. But is this disclosed? No. Is the location of the mobile device owner logged or used in any other way? No way to tell.
Google also collects information about your browsing (or at least so the conventional wisdom goes) so that they can "better serve your search requests." I'm not visiting sites on the 'net that I wouldn't want my mother to know about, but I also don't want anybody tracking what I'm doing so they can more effectively serve me ads. And, I am particularly annoyed that there is no in-your-face disclosure about this and that there is no clear disclosure about whether Google shares this information with third parties. In short, I view this data collection as an invasion of privacy and a reason to avoid their services.
To be clear, Google does have a dog in this fight. The more they know about you, the more likely the ads they serve you will generate a click, which in turn is more valuable to them. They aren't just creating some data for intellectual research about browsing trends. They are trying to increase the chance that they can influence you to take a particular action (i.e., click on an ad). If they can subtly steer you toward a given line of research that pays them (e.g., which medicine should I take for XYZ?), then the value of their search as a neutral tool decreases and the likelihood that users are experiencing a table that's tilted in a particular direction increases.
Why Bing, Then?
We know that Google's self-proclaimed motto is "don't be evil," which is a swipe at Microsoft. Yet there is no evidence that Microsoft is being less than forthright with their privacy policies. Their results are comparable with those Google provides -- try Bing for a week and see if you miss Google. I think the Bing maps are inferior, and I'm not willing to live with that just to spite Google. And of course I won't be dropping my Gmail accounts.
How I see it is this: Microsoft has been more up-front about how they use what they can know about you from your browsing habits. Since their core business is not selling advertising, I see less motive for them to skate on the thin ice of influencing browsing habits.
My message to Microsoft would be this: Bring your maps up to par and decouple your cloud services from the Windows platform so that they work seamlessly on the majority of computers in the majority of browsers.
What Got Me Started on This Rant?
I inadvertently clicked on Picasa, and it immediately started scouring my hard disk for images without permission. I never, ever want this to happen. If I start an image sharing program, that does not mean share my whole hard disk. I hold the copyright to all of my images. Many of my images are licensed to others who would not want them appearing on a photo sharing site. So, I don't want to see an app prowling my disk for stuff without permission.