O’Reilly Radar > Google and Privacy
Well, the age of information has pretty much begun and informations are of more value (even commercially) than they have ever been before. We used to say: “Knowledge is power” but that implies not only the possession of knowledge but also the access control to knowledge and the distribution of knowledge (usually performed by media of all kinds).
The above blog entry by Tim O’Reilly tries to put in perspective the way Google collects and uses data to other services that collect and use our data. For those of you who don’t already know: Google harnesses immense masses of data about their users. They know what you searched for, they know your E-Mail contents, they know your calendar and your documents. They even know your photos and your websites. They know what I blog about. They know what I bought with Google Checkout. Of course ‘know’ means ‘they have the information stored somewhere on their servers’. If this information is only touched by automated systems and never sees a human eye (other than mine) we’re fine. But who knows? There is no way to check what exactly your profile at Google (or any other company like Yahoo, eBay or Amazon) looks like.
They all have privacy statements and they depend on our trust, because they rely on us giving the information freely. We have to hope they protect our information good enough so nobody can get it and use for evil.
However, this is only one aspect of the overall discussion. O’Reilly talks about the ‘cloud’ when he means that my data is stored somewhere on the internet. And most of the time that means it’s publically accessible to some degree. My music taste on last.fm, my bookmarks on del.icio.us, my social network on Myspace.
And that’s exactly what it is: cloudy. We don’t really see where information go and we can only hope they are hard enough to access for strangers.
In Germany we’re discussing a new kind of passport law. The plan up to now was that a digital photograph and two fingerprints should be stored on the passport. This data should not have been kept anywhere else. However now there are plans to store that fingerprints in a database that could then be accessible online for use by the police. Because most of the people need passports they would all be stored in that database. Today the only reason someone could take your fingerprints (other than if you give them) is if the police arrests you for some reason. Of course we should trust the police, or shouldn’t we?
Another discussion arose around a subject called the “federal trojan” which should be a new way for authorities to search through someone computer without the person even knowing.
Questions is: Who do I trust? Do I trust Google (who is dependent on me giving the information freely) more than I do trust my government (who of course could not be re-elected but is able to force me to give them any information they want until then)?
While thinking about the question we have to realise: Most people don’t ask those questions! If they’re told this is done for their own safety they (mostly) agree! The town Middlesbrough in England e.g. has installed cameras (about 160 and counting) all over the city and they even have talking cameras where the operator of the cameras can talk to the people directly when they commit any kind of infringement or crime (e.g. if they throw cigarette butts on the ground). Anybody ever read “Nineteen-EightyFour”?
But the people who live there seem to have accepted this behaviour (they have a pretty high crime rate there) like so many people all over the world accept being surveillanced for their own good. And I think the reason is that they are all afraid. There are pretty many things in the modern world to be afraid of and it’s nice to know someone is trying to make you feel safe. There is (of course) terrorism, crime, deseases, unemployment, the ‘climate crisis’. And mass media makes us believe they are all around us, ready to strike any moment. I just recently saw a nive movie called “V for Vendetta” that created the picture of a future country that grew into a fascist government because of the fear people carried.
Well, I very much don’t believe we’re in such a great danger (at least not more than we have ever been) and I wonder if the people who cry out for more safety are actually the same who jump off bridges, like Rollercoasters and climb large buildings or mountains preferably with no security measures. So I don’t actually see why we need more safety. No one can prevent the future coming and if we’re afraid of the unknown we should probably fear our own faces in the mirrors.
I don’t want to give away my freedom for more safety. I want to exercise the control over my data on my own and if I decide to give them to Google they better don’t mess around with it.
It seems interesting to see that the “war on information” seems to be more and more possible. If we let companies or authorities take over our information they will at some point ask themselves who owns which information and who is willing to share them. When I started developing my idea of the future for a novel I intend to write at some point (http://yodahome.de/hackersguide) I didn’t expect this to become true so quickly. Looks like I should hurry up…