Google — Master of the universe

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.

22 comments Add your comment

Dan Abbamont

December 14th, 2009
6:09 am

If you remember a few years ago someone got access to and leaked AOLs search record data, which was a great source of keyword information for marketers but also allowed you to identify users by a number (not their actual identity) and see what terms they had searched for.

It was creepy because in some cases you could see a single user looking up murder weapons, how to dispose of bodies, etc. But still, there has never been true privacy on the internet. All it takes is a subpoena and with the Patriot Act less for the right people.

Dan Abbamont

anarcho-capitalist

December 14th, 2009
6:39 am

C’mon Bob, nothing to see here, move along.

After all, the government has OUR best interests at heart.

Just ask your colleague Cynthia.

Howard Fore

December 14th, 2009
8:10 am

No, Mr. Barr, that’s not what Mr. Schmidt is saying. He’s saying that as our society embraces technology we tend to forget how easily that technology also allows others to find out what we are doing and saying. Virtually no technologies that people use daily are used in a manner that ensures the communications and actions can remain the private business of those using them. Some are intentionally public, some seem private but are easily made public (voicemail, text message, IM, email).

I’d be surprised if Google wants to turn over its data to anyone, that’s where they make their money. But Mr. Schmidt is acknowledging the reality that the Patriot Act (that you voted for) can reach into many places and get data that would otherwise be (mostly) private. Your ire should be at best be directed inward or at the Department of Justice, not Google.

jconservative

December 14th, 2009
9:21 am

“…privacy is the underpinning of civilization itself – the right of one man to be free from other men.”

Bob, are you (and Ayn Rand) saying that there should be (or is ) a “right to privacy” in the Constitution? Does the Ninth Amendment – “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” – mean that there is a right to privacy in the Constitution?

If there is a right to privacy in the Constitution, this would make provisions of the Patriot Act unconstitutional. This would also make Roe v Wade constitutional as Roe was decided on a right of privacy originally recognized by the court in Griswold.

Now you have people who call themselves conservative opposing the Patriot Act, as a privacy issue. Others who call themselves conservative support the Patriot Act, as a personal safety issue.
Some who call themselves conservative oppose Roe v Wade. Other conservatives support the Wade decision as a privacy issue.

The court has been dodging the privacy issue for years. It is time for the court to address the Ninth Amendment. But do not hold your breath, it has taken the court over 200 years to address the Second Amendment
application to the states.

Mutts R Stupid

December 14th, 2009
10:10 am

J Edgar Hoovers dirty files on Americans have been replaced by Eric Schmidt’s dirty files on Americans. Google sees you when you are sleeping, Google sees you when you are naughty…

Eric

December 14th, 2009
10:29 am

Amen! Convicing article once again, Mr. Barr. Thank you.

JF McNamara

December 14th, 2009
10:34 am

I think you read too much into Scmidt’s statement. He just stated the obvious to me. I look at his statement this way, “If you don’t want a sex tape of you on the internet, either don’t tape it or maintain a copy in your private vault.”

Google doesn’t owe you privacy. Do you get privacy at McDonalds? They are both privately owned companies. Just because you are in your home when you use one doesn’t make them different. If you don’t want Google to know what you are doing, go to the library and use public computers or try using the good old fashioned telephone can phone book to do what you want (as long as there isn’t a warrant for a wire tap).

Jess

December 14th, 2009
10:41 am

Personnaly I’m ok with google information in the hands of a private company. Knowing that this situation is only a senate or house vote away from the government taking the information is scary.

My wife and I were talking about Google just yesterday. What if the government decided to build a similar database? It would cost trillions, and probably wouldn’t work, leaving the lawyers and academics scratching their collective heads as they do often today. Google did it and makes a fortune in the process.

This should be a lesson to all of us.

neoCarlinist

December 14th, 2009
11:16 am

Bob, you’re starting to sound a bit “chicken little”. I don’t know that the Constitution guarantees “personal privacy” and there is no way the Founding Fathers could have anticipated the creation of the internet, social networking sites, search engines, internet cookies, etc. “privacy” is the first casualty of technology. if people want privacy they can throw away their cell phones, computers and credit cards. the government AND commerce are the antithesis of “personal privacy”. enough with the Ayn Rand deficiation. it has been established (historically and via this blog) that she was a purveyor of fiction and labeling her a “philosopher” is insulting to “real men of genius” (see: Bud Light ads). ALL Americans would do well to be judicious when employing technology for work and play, but the fact remains, it’s here to stay and if the government can use information to serve its own needs (control, taxation, consolidation of power), it will. again, this is nothing new.

Tax Problems CPA

December 14th, 2009
11:34 am

Unless you are doing something illegal you have absolutely nothing to worry about. This information is only captured when you use google while you are logged into your google account.

http://www.edisonaccounting.com

Chris Broe

December 14th, 2009
1:50 pm

A very timely piece from M. Barr today! There IS a record of websites we’ve visited. Google knows if we’ve been naughty or nice!

Boy, am I glad I never clicked on any of those pop-up goat porn ads.

Concerning privacy, Ayn Rand wrote, in her novel, “Fountainhead”, “You better watch out! Better not cry! And don’t even think about pouting!
I’m telling you why, the epistemological constraints of Existentialism is why. Do I have to do all your thinking for you? None of you deserve any goodies or toys.”

Ayn Rand went on to co-write the Grinch Who Stole Xmas with Dr. Seus.

(True).

Barbara

December 14th, 2009
1:59 pm

neo, you obviously haven’t read or studied Rand.

Byron Mathison Kerr

December 14th, 2009
2:22 pm

As a long-time computer services professional, I am alarmed at the kind of personal information and opinion people are offering to the world, either with or without their knowledge.

I started publishing on-line blog comments, reviews, etc, under an alias about a year ago. I changed my real name to my alias on several sites. As Google gradually updated its content, my real name started showing up less and less in searches.

Then, to my dismay, I found older content posted under my real name that had been cross posted to other sites that I had no affiliation with. There is no way to remove or change this information. Fortunately, I do not have any real concerns about the content.

On a related topic, I spent over two hours this weekend on Facebook trying to understand and reestablish privacy settings for what had become “publicly available information” or “PAI,” as the result of Facebook recently “improving” its privacy policy and settings. See, http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2009/12/facebooks-new-privacy-changes-good-bad-and-ugly

neoCarlinist

December 14th, 2009
4:06 pm

Barbara and other “Ayn Rant” worshippers; you are correct. I did not “study” Ayn Rand. I studied American History. I’ve read Rand and find her musings to be so much adolescent pining. FYI, I am of the opinion that Ted “Suess” Geisel’s ficiton is much better. Question: If “self-interest” is all that matters, why shouldn’t Google, or the FBI or Bank of America gather as much information as it can? There is a word for those who think their own (individual) self-interests to be supreme. It’s called pathological narcissism. This infantile pining for a world were individual performance is rewarded and malfeasance is punished “by the market” is about as realistic as Dr. Suess, and as stated, I think Suess had a better take on the nature of man. But don’t take my word for it. Thomas Paine called out “government” before we had a (U.S.) government. He didn’t write novels or screenplays or blogs… He wrote essays and papers. Here’s something Ayn Rand seems to have missed; The Constitution exists for the benefit of the government, not for the benefit fo Sheeple like Rand. It is a card trick, an illusion to make dreamers like Rand believe they have control over their lives. It’s better than most card tricks, but it’s still a trick, and while Rand may have been “free” to bloviate about what is wrong with everyone but her, as I have suggested, “…if ifs and buts were cherries and nuts…”

Jess

December 14th, 2009
4:32 pm

If it had not been for Google, I would not have realized that Ave. federal Govt. salaries are now $71,206 while average private sector salaries are $40,331. This does not include $41,000 per year in benefits for the feds.

I like Google, but I do see how a database this comprehensive would be tempting to our government. I,m sure one day they will claim that this database is too important and sensitive to be trusted to private enterprise.

dewstarpath

December 14th, 2009
4:32 pm

- neoCarlinist – A true student of Thomas Paine’s
“Common Sense”.

Chris Broe

December 14th, 2009
8:19 pm

I wonder how many of us googled Ayn Rand to find some angle of attack on Bob Barr’s piece that would have trashed him but good. He was probably just waiting in ambush for anyone dumb enough to pretend to be conversant enough in Ayn Rand to try to challenge him. It is very easy to make a total fool out of yourself by venturing into the Ayn Rand arena. (Most people even mispronounce her pseudonym. I found that out on the google links, btw.)

Ayn Rand analysis is some really tough sledding, and the words that critics use to describe her body of work are self-perpetuating, that is, the very words Ayn Rand used to describe the real-world distractions challenging the accuracy of perceiving the world are the ones the critics use to debunk or support her philosophy.

See what I mean? I have no idea what I just said.

I think Bob Barr was setting us all up by using the cheapest Ayn Rand quote he could find. Her only remarks about privacy, if google is correct, were part of a novel’s narrative, so one should only use it to critique the artistic value of her ideas. Bob Barr probably did his doctorate thesis in Ayn Rand and was hoping to pounce on anyone’s torpedo. That’s probably how he made it into the CIA – nobody knew what the hell he was talking about.

Sure am glad I didn’t fall for it.

Kyle

December 15th, 2009
12:09 am

Back when you were campaigning for president I remember writing that letter to youtube AKA google about Showing your name on the presidential candidate page using their old motto “don’t be evil” Which has obviously has changed. I don’t like the idea of them having some of my information, but they do offer quite good services. Their search engine is so powerful because it knows what sites your like. The homage has one convenient place for all the RSS feeds. It is definitely a great site that there is no close substitute to. I’d rather keep my data on a unix based server than use Bing from Microsoft.

By the way has anyone looks at Google’s old master plan whiteboard, http://undergoogle.com/tools/GoogleMasterPlanEN.html Quite scary what can now be checked off about 3 years after this was posted.

Dagny Taggart

December 15th, 2009
5:27 pm

Use http://www.cuil.com instead. They do not keep your searches.

From their website:

Cuil analyzes the Web, not its users

Privacy is a hot topic these days, and we want you to feel totally comfortable using our service. Because Cuil analyzes Web pages and not click-throughs, we don’t need to know your search history and habits. So our privacy policy is very simple: when you search with Cuil, we do not keep any personally identifiable information, period. We have no idea who sends queries: not by name, not by IP address, and not by cookie. Your search history is your business, not ours. We don’t need to keep logs of our users’ search activity, so we don’t. For further details, read our Privacy Policy. Don’t worry, it’s short and to the point. No legal mumbo-jumbo.

Jefferson

December 15th, 2009
8:13 pm

I’ve got the dirt on him, he works for me.

A True Patriot

December 18th, 2009
9:04 am

How long will it be before BO decides that he needs Google to further his plans for Socialism in America? He’s taken over Banks, Insurance Companies, Wall Street and maybe Healthcare…..this should be an easy one for him.

dewstarpath

December 25th, 2009
1:43 pm

- A True Patriot – another “virtual warrior” going
off the conspiracy deep end.