Google finds much more efficient way to sell the privacy of its most dedicated users

Combining data from all services makes it more searchable! (And more salable, too)

Whoever is in charge of privacy-invading lines of business at Google must really regret that sign that said 'Do No Evil.' It's the kind of thing people remember forever and call you on when you inevitably decide a little evil is the essence of good business. Well, profitable business, anyway.

Google announced yesterday that it would change its privacy and data-collection policies so it could track the activity of users on all its services – Search, Picasa, Google+, Gmail, YouTube, etc.

The intent, according to Google's blog explaining itself, is to combine all a user's personal information – including Google searches, Gmail messages, chat logs and everything else – into a searchable database so every search will return results from the user's personal information as well as the Web.

That's convenient from some points of view.

It's so laudable, in fact, that – according to PCWorld – developers at Facebook, Twitter and MySpace (MySpace?) coded up a 'Don't Be Evil' tool for Google Search as a way of dinging the quality and reach of Google's current social-network-search capabilities.

The tool searches for any topic within a whole series of social networks, not just Google+ and Picasa, as Google currently does.

Here's a little video on it:

Granted, anything involving Facebook is almost guaranteed to violate its customers' privacy in some new and horrifyingly mass-market way. But obviously some people do want to search all their social networks at once, from one place; or at least some social-network developers think they do.

Some social networkers, possibly many, probably do want that level of convenience, in the same way I want Google to keep developing Google Desktop Search, which allows me to avoid organizing the information on my increasingly voluminous hard drives and just search for the documents I want when I want them.

Yes, it's co-dependency; it's also a convenience for me without being much of a privacy risk because the search engine, indexes and content all sit on my own machines, not on those of someone who can make money selling information on my habits to marketers.

Conceptual disconnect

That's the problem Google runs into with anything it does.

Its real genius is in finding things quickly. It constantly gets into trouble by finding things other people don't want it to find.

In China it got in trouble for finding things the government didn't want it to find.

In Europe and the U.S. it got into trouble for finding information on individuals demanded by various governments (it would have gotten into worse trouble for not doing those things, but when your specialty is finding information other people think is lost, there is a strong J. Edgar Hoover angle you can play in those situations).

When you run social networks, email networks, chat, picture and file storage services, users expect you to be a little circumspect.

Sure it's easier to be able to search everything at the same time from the same place.

That doesn't mean it's a good thing to put them all in one place where they can all be searched – especially if you plan to cull that information for data that's valuable to people or companies that would dearly like to exploit your customers' habits for their own profit.

It doesn't mean your customers will be happy to let you combine information on all their activities from all your services into one place specifically to sell to advertisers, even if you tell them ahead of time that you're doing it.

It just rubs salt in the wound that the customers whose little remaining privacy Google plans to erode even further are those most dedicated to it and its various services.

Yes, Google can track the habits of anonymous users with cookies and other techniques.

The real profit is in tracking in great detail the habits of its account-owning users – the ones who have to sign in before they use the service, rather than those who just browse through it.

Opt-out is possible, but not easy

It's not true that Google won't give those customers the opportunity to opt out of the tracking service.

It doesn't make opting out easy, however.

Those without Google logins have to accept a long-term cookie that identifies them as not wanting to be tracked by Google.

Needless to say, opting out in this way means having to allow yourself to be tracked by Google anyway. (Google even has a neat little Chrome add-on you can use to track all your (not at all) anonymous don't-track cookies. )

If you have a Google login and you actually log in to the service online, Google reserves the right to track your activity, collect your preferences, friends, activity and files from all the other Google services you use and pool them all in one place – the better, of course, to serve you.

You can use the Ad Preferences Manager to tell Google you don't want to be tracked. It doesn't promise not to do so, however. It just promises not to use the information in the same way it does the rest – to target ads that make its service more effective for and attractive to advertisers.

"We don’t sell your personal information, nor do we share it externally without your permission except in very limited circumstances like a valid court order. We try hard to be transparent about the information we collect, and to give you meaningful choices about how it is used."

That's actually true. Google is a lot more transparent than Facebook, for example.

And there is some potential to limit how much it will exploit information about your private activities.

It may not sell your information to third parties; that doesn't mean it won't use the information to help it sell other things to them – more closely targeted ads, demographic studies, predictive analytics and all the other manipulative conclusions that come out of future-predicting analyses of online behavior.

It won't sell your information, only yourself.

Google just barely acknowledges in the announcement that it is aggregating your private information for its benefit as well as yours. If you weren't looking for the admission, you'd miss it.

Because, like all the other big Internet information-services companies, when it comes to something that might be good for it even if it's bad for customers, Google doesn't hesitate.

It goes with what's good for it.

Whether that's evil or not.

Do evil to yourself?

Our recently launched personal search feature is a good example of the cool things Google can do when we combine information across products. Our search box now gives you great answers not just from the web, but your personal stuff too. So if I search for restaurants in Munich, I might see Google+ posts or photos that people have shared with me, or that are in my albums. Today we can also do things like make it easy for you to read a memo from Google Docs right in your Gmail, or add someone from your Gmail contacts to a meeting in Google Calendar.

But there’s so much more that Google can do to help you by sharing more of your information with … well, you. We can make search better—figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too – Official Google Blog, Updating our Privacy Policies, Jan. 24, 2012

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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