Eric Schmidt just may be the world’s most powerful CEO. He is not the highest-paid CEO and the company he heads is not the largest in size. Schmidt’s vast power stems from the fact that he controls the largest collection of personal data ever amassed. Eric Schmidt is CEO of Google, and the universe of information over which he holds sway is chock-full of deeply personal data on untold millions of individuals, companies, and even government agencies.
In addition to being the world’s largest Internet search engine, Google provides email and instant-chat services. It manages business documents and personal voice mails. Subscribers can use “Google Health” to store and share their most intimate medical records.
Even a user of basic Google services who has established a profile with the company (either by an email or YouTube account, or through Google Checkout), can log in to their “Dashboard” and view their latest searches, purchases, videos they have viewed, or chats in which they have participated. It’s all there; whether they want it to be or not.
Many, if not most Americans in this post-911 world, appear to have concluded that they “have nothing to hide” and in order for government to “make us safer,” they willingly submit to all manner of privacy-invasive government programs. Moreover, in order to save a few seconds or minutes of their time, American consumers eagerly rush to sign up for other measures that surrender more of their privacy, to businesses.
However, if focused on the possibility of having their Internet search history released to the world, many Americans might give pause.
Personal privacy is the cornerstone of dignity and self-respect. In fact, as recognized by 20th Century philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, privacy is the underpinning of civilization itself – the right of one man to be free from other men.
Unfortunately in today’s socially-networked world, and especially for young people, many millions of Internet users believe their identity is secure and their privacy protected simply because they use a screen name or email address. Thanks in large part to Google’s “free” programs and services, that is no longer the case.
As a player in the free market system, Google is responsible for many innovations. From its search algorithms to its mapping of planet Earth and the heavens, the company is owed a profound level of academic, engineering and scientific respect.
However, the company is inching ever faster and further away from its motto, “Don’t be evil,” as reflected in a recent interview in which CEO Schmidt was asked about privacy by CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo. He responded:
If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines — including Google — do retain this information for some time and it’s important, for example, that we are all subject . . . to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities.
Those words are deeply disturbing. Schmidt apparently believes that “you shouldn’t be doing” anything you would want to keep private; in other words, there is no right to privacy. He seems also to embrace the notion that the government should have access to any information it wants.
Putting Schmidt’s philosophy in real terms, a hospice patient who wants to privately explore alternative medicine “shouldn’t be doing” that. An abused wife privately seeking counseling or help shouldn’t be seeking it if she wants to keep her struggle private.
If Google’s attitude toward personal privacy spreads, and many fear that is already too late, we will become a world in which all walls – real or virtual – are replaced by windows; a world in which thoughts of personal dignity are nothing more than quaint nostalgia.