Recently, as part of a legal settlement regarding the privacy-leaking PR nightmare Google Buzz, Google has agreed to submit to regular “privacy audits.”
Those that know me well know that for much of my adult life, Google has been at the heart of every argument I’ve ever made regarding privacy in the digital age. That’s because Google’s potential knowledge of any given person is simply staggering.
For any average person, it is conceivably possible for Google to “know” (anonymously of course) who you call (android phones, Google voice) who you talk to (gmail, Google voice) what you talk about to different people (anonymous scanning of your gmail email messages) where you are (android phones with gps enabled, google latitude, location based searching on Google searches) and what you’re doing there (Google buzz, Google latitude). They can know whom you interact with about what just from email alone, and they know all about your interests hobbies and aspirations just from how you search on google.com.
That’s some scary stuff.
Let’s be crystal clear: I have never argued that there was ever a shred of evidence that Google has ever had any intention whatsoever to do anything intentionally nefarious with the information they possess. My point has always been that knowing so much about everyone equates to a considerable amount of power. And, as Shakespeare famously observed, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I’m not categorically apposed to power, I just believe in the wisdom of keeping it in check.
I bet by now you think that this privacy audit thing is a pretty big deal to me. Well, it is. But not just because of the audits themselves. To reiterate, I don’t think Google has been intentionally guilty of much wrongdoing (other than a colossal misjudgment regarding the launch of buzz.) (Well, maybe that and giving up on Google wave too soon. But I digress.)
What I really am is proud of all of us. When Google buzz launched, privacy was immediately an issue. People complained. Lawsuits were filed. The government responded. In short, people cared. People were vigilant, reasonably informed, and in the face of injustice, in mere moments they reacted. I finally believe that people are not just giving away their privacy without thinking; they are choosing to trust Google and enjoy the phenomenal services Google offers (as well should be their right) so long as they have no reason not to trust them. People really are paying attention.
To everyone who stepped up when our privacy was at stake, I urge you to pretend these privacy audits never happened – we still need you. Some say that after airbags were invented, people began to drive more recklessly. I’m proud of us – this was a promising first step. Again, not because Google got in trouble, but because we cared about our privacy, even in an increasingly public age. Don’t let these privacy audits become technological airbags – we can’t afford to be reckless when it comes to our personal information. Just as we were trained since birth to protect our identities, or walk in groups at night just to be careful, so too must we now learn in a digital world how to protect our most private information from being used in any way that we do not explicitly consent to. The more confidence we can have in the protection of our privacy, the more we can embrace being public when we so choose.