The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Google Eviled Me

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It was inevitable. Google, the do-no-evil company, did me wrong. The story I have to tell is not only about me, but it is revealing about where the company is going and where it might end up.

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People should be clear on what their transactions with Google actually mean and what potential for abuse they carry.

Here’s what happened. Saturday, I had to move this blog to this new home at WordPress because my Google Blogger account was unceremoniously shut down while trying to open a Google-plus account. I lost my blog and my Gmail account because I had put in a bad date of birth.

Why did I do a silly thing like? Simple: I do not want Google to categorize me like some piece of inventory in a warehouse. After all, that’s their business, their only business. They sell information about their customers. And you’re right, Facebook does the same thing. So do a lot of web sites and a lot of businesses, but that doesn’t make it OK.

Google also does a special thing. Google is the search engine. By being that, Google has data on everything I’m curious about, everything I’m thinking of buying, everyone whose name I have ever looked up.

In its outrageous arrogance, the company claims that it can mash up and distill all these disparate facts about my life on line and predict what I’m going to do next. That’s what it sells to advertisers.

As far as that goes today, it’s obnoxious, but not too bad. They also want to use this data to serve me better. That is to skew my search results to what they think I want, based on what I’ve done or looked at in the past. The is only the first rung of my objections.

This is a perversion of the promise of the Internet and the connected world. The close examination of individuals on the web is even more than the commercialization of the Web, it is a clear threat to the free web itself, and an opening for malevolent governments to spy on their citizens.

I realize that you may not mind if Google, or Facebook, or any of them, merely shows you some ads for stuff you sort of like. But I appeal to your better judgment to see the implications of such a seemingly innocent service.

Google already has tremendous power in the marketplace for goods and services. This is reflected in the sprouting and growth of an industry that offers to raise the search engine rankings of businesses. They play a cat-and-mouse game with Google, but I have noticed one thing: The rankings of Google shopping services almost always appears first on the list.

I have bought computer equipment for many years and I have extensive bookmarks to places I like. I have seen that some of the best companies for certain products no longer appear anywhere near the top of Google results. Google shopping (or whatever it’s called) and Amazon always do. That’s the first level of the perversion of the Web.

Google, of course, does more than search. The company offers an array of services, all involving material that involve your private thoughts and transactions. Google already reads your Gmail. If someone snuck into your house and opened your snail mail, it would be a federal felony. In the not too distant past, some pretty intelligent people thought that it was a very bad thing. But now, snail mail is an object of derision. We have better, faster means of communication. As far as email goes, Google assures us that no human eyeballs ever gaze at yours. Just a friendly algorithm to infer your interests from the words and phrases you use, and use them to show you relevant ads.

This happened to me and was the last time I used Gmail for anything but my Blogger blog and a couple technical mailing lists. I was sick to my stomach, vomiting, unable to eat. I was away from home and wrote to my wife, whining. Gmail cheerfully, fully automatically, showed me a slew of weight loss ads.

Not exactly genius, is it? Not even vaguely human. So why should we care? Because we have no control over the transactions that Google may now, or at some time in the future, perform with our private thoughts. Keep it in mind the next time you complain about your boss, or express a political opinion in a private Gmail email.

As if to admit that the slick algorithms reading your mail and collating your search terms isn’t quite cutting it, Google has started on a campaign to collect the complete identities of its users.

First, they began to pester registered users to provide a phone number — to serve you better, in case you lose your password. Oh, those pesky passwords; you forget them all the time. Think about it. Your phone number tells them so much more than your (possibly made-up) username. And one profit-making company can connect it to every thing you wonder about, that is search for, every offhand comment you make to friends and family in your private email, everything you buy. All there in the same database.

When I was locked out of my blog and mail yesterday, Google gave me the helpful information that I could retrieve it by proving my age. How? One way was to fax them government-issued identification. Are you kidding me?

There are a number of ironies here. I use my real name on the web, and I’m sure that a moderately persistent surfer could dig up my age and lots more. I’m not anonymous. And Google knows full well who I am — if they had the desire to check. I’ve had that Gmail account for many years. Google operatives (or algorithms) could read it. Hell, they could look at the photo — you see it here. Is that the face of a 12-year-old boy? Not to mention that I’ve even talked to Google recruiters about employment.

When I wrote in the web form that I was born in 1999, I wasn’t thinking of anything but that my age is none of their business. It could’ve have easily been a typo. But there is no appeal. There is no contact number to explain. It is Google’s brave new world.

What’s the point of Google’s doing all this? They are now selling anonymous users, commercially valuable profiles that are not attached to names. Clearly, they want to sell fully identifiable users, with name, age, address, income category, occupation, family status, along with a package of everything that has ever been on your mind and everything that ever will be on your mind. Today, when you apply for a job, your prospective employer tries to look you up on the web. What will it be worth to Google to sell prospective bosses little dossiers on prospective employees? Did someone say, “Google would never do that”?

It doesn’t matter whether or not the individuals who run Google today, from Larry Page to Eric Schmidt, have ever had a malevolent impulse, and if all they want is another few billion dollars. They are building a system where the possibilities go beyond any cheesy sci-fi story that you’ve ever read or watched.

Let’s assume that these men are honest today, and that all they want is to become the world’s first trillionaires. They already tell you often that they will comply with any legitimate government requests for information. That’s reasonable, but there are two very large problems: First, they will not always be in control of Google, and Second, the definition of legitimate government requests has changed a lot in my lifetime. Are you sure you want to just keep freely handing over indelible information for use by some corporate executives in the future who will freely comply with which future government requests for information. As Schmidt said recently: If you don’t want anyone to know about it, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it. That’s eerie in itself. But the phrase could easily be written: “maybe you shouldn’t be thinking about it.”

Thinking can never be a crime, so long as those in charge don’t know what you’re thinking. Orwell never imagined that so many people would so freely hand over detailed reports about what they were thinking.

The less they know, the better. Consider yourself warned.

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Written by theunbiasedeye

September 26, 2011 at 9:01 am

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