Google: More evil than evil itself?

Google's new privacy policies are prompting more accusations of Satanic intent. But the real question isn't whether it's evil, it's how long Google holds onto your data.

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Google announced a new privacy policy this week, which can only mean one thing: It truly is evil, evil in a way that totally redefines our previous notions of evil, so evil it makes Dr. Evil look like Dr. Phil.

That at least is the impression you might get by stumbling across the blogosphere this morning. Why is everyone so upset? Two reasons. One, Google took the 70-odd privacy policies it has published for each of its services and rolled them all up into one. And deux, it is also taking the data from those 70-odd services and combining it in order to serve you ads and display personalized search results and make recommendations and do everything else Google does, which is to say, nearly everything.

Here’s the part everyone’s got their knickers in a twist about.

Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.

The problem? This isn’t new. Forbes’ The Not-So Private Parts blogger Kash Hill has it right: Google’s been reserving the right to combine the data of its registered users since 2005. That much hasn’t changed. What has changed is that Google is finally getting around to doing it.

Y’all did realize that Google is an enormous nuclear-powered data-sucking engine, right? Just checking. The fact that it was sucking the data into 70 separate buckets and is now funneling all of that into one very big bucket doesn’t change the type of data it was gathering or its degree of relative evilness.

What it may change, however, is how Google interacts with law enforcement. And that’s important. Because now, instead of 70 separate court orders,  Johnny Law can serve Google with a single request for your information – one-stop shopping to find out what search terms you’ve used, YouTube videos you’ve watched, your calendar appointments, items you’ve G+1’d, and so on.

That doesn’t mean Google will automatically hand over this information; it has a pretty decent track record of resisting legal orders it has deemed overbroad. But I’m betting it will lead to an increase in the number of legal requests Google does get for “persons of interest,” if only because it suddenly makes it easier to get at.

Like Facebook, Google is a Wal-Mart of personal information. Why go to a dozen different specialty shops when you can find everything you need in one place? Why stop with demanding search or email records when you can ask for the whole schmear in the same legal document?

The question I have is how long Google plans to retain this information.

Per one of Google’s many FAQs, Google holds onto your search information from 9 months (IP addresses) to 18 months (cookies) before anonymizing it. An IP address tells you a lot about what computer was used to perform a search; cookies may tell you what sites were visited and what users did while they were there. Search information has been used in countless civil and criminal cases, including the Casey Anthony trial.

That’s just for search. How much data does Google retain for all 70 of its other services? All of it? How long does Google keep your data after you decide to delete your Google account?

These are the real questions to be asking, because what the cops really want is a record of your past behavior – and Google has it. If Google kept this data for only a few weeks or not at all, as some other Web services do, the issue would never come up. 

Android phone users are truly stuck, because they have to use Google services to use their phones for anything more than phone calls. (And who wants a phone just to make calls?)

The easy solution to all this? Log out. Kill your Google account. Trade in your phone. Give up the convenience of having one free service to provide your email, searches, calendar and contacts, etc. Or just live with the consequences.

Evil? Not really. But something to think carefully about.

Got a question about privacy and/or social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter:@tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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