Everybody trusts Google - the name has become synonymous with web searches and contextual advertising, but mounting evidence leads some dissenters to ask the vital question 'are my privacy and security at risk when using Google services?'
This is also the contention of a new short film that attempts to unsettle your assumptions about everyone's favourite web monopoly: Google.
Take Google Mail for instance - it is open knowledge that Gmail scans the contents of both incoming and outgoing mail, so that well targeted contextual advertising can be placed alongside your inbox. Gmail has been enormously popular, given that it is free, well featured and packs over two gigabytes of storage. But can you be one hundred percent certain that the mails scanned for the purposes of ad placement are not used for other purposes?
In this guide to Googlephobia, I have gathered a range of questions that are starting to be asked about the possible negative impact the web juggernaut might have on your life. In an age in which governments are attempting closer and closer surveillance and control of their citizens, can a private company be trusted to keep private information confidential?
Many would argue not, and yet many people persist in using email, online spreadsheets and documents, and web searches that could well be used against them at a later date. That's right, even your web searches are stored deep down in the Google vaults, ready to pulled up and examined at a moment's notice.
Capping this overview of Google's less sunny side is the short film Master Plan, complete with a transcription by Executive Editor Livia Iacolare.
So sit back, survey the landscape, and decide for yourself if you have reason to be afraid.
Google and big brother
In trusting Google as your primary source of search information, or as an email, news, and even web application provider, how much are you exposing yourself to surveillance and possible manipulation? Just what information does Google have, and what are they willing to do with it?
''...Google does record and store, as no doubt do other search engines, by individual details of everything searched through the Google engine.
This may be released where legally demanded or to satisfy national security or other state interests...
In other words should you be even so much as suspected of something illegal or of concern to government bodies, Google will happily oblige said bodies with full details of all of the searches you have run, and where they took you. This all comes down to how far you trust your government.
When Adam L. Penenberg researched Google for his Mother Jones article on the subject he directly questioned a Google official on the point of where the company stands with regards to handing out confidential information:
''I asked her if the company had ever been subpoenaed for user records, and whether it had complied. She said yes, but wouldn’t comment on how many times. Google’s website says that as a matter of policy the company does “not publicly discuss the nature, number or specifics of law enforcement requests.”
So can you trust Google only as far as you can trust the Bush administration? “I don’t know,” Wong replied. “I’ve never been asked that question before.”
''Steele raised eyebrows when he confirmed from his contacts within the CIA and Google that Google was working in tandem with "the agency," a claim made especially volatile by the fact that Google was recently caught censoring Alex Jones' Terror Storm and has targeted other websites for blackout in the past.
"I think that Google has made a very important strategic mistake in dealing with the secret elements of the U.S. government - that is a huge mistake and I'm hoping they'll work their way out of it and basically cut that relationship off," said the ex-CIA man.
If Google is indeed in the pockets of shady intelligence agencies, how far can you truly trust them to keep your confidential data to themselves, and not turn it over at the drop of a hat?
'Okay', you might say, 'but I have nothing to hide. The only people that this is going to worry are terrorists and pedophiles'. But whether you have nothing to hide or not, what is it stake here is a matter of civil liberties, the right to privacy and the possibility of state control and surveillance beyond anything known before. We are looking at the possibility of a huge escalation in the erosion of our personal freedom and privacy, beyond any security risks that might come about as a consequence.
But that's not all.
Google being in bed with big brother is a scary thought, but it isn't such a monumental task to just switch to other services if it concerns you too much. But there are those that suggest that there may be little in the way of an alternative in the coming years, as Google's master plan would seem to involve constant expansion and the creation of a monopolistic empire that ties up the web, telecommunications and television all in one. Where do you turn when everything has a Google badge on it?
Robert Cringely over at I, Cringely details this disturbing possibility - the idea that Google is looking to create a total monopoly not just on the web services that we use, but also our phones and televisions. In Cringely's discussion of Google's monopolistic masterplan he details the fact that Google controls more network fiber than any other organization, and that it is buying up data centers by the dozen across America. 'So what?' you might ask, but as Cringely goes on to argue, the implications are much graver than they might first look.
Internet use is changing rapidly. As the web moves from being a static medium of words and the occasional picture towards a dynamic medium stuffed full of video and audio, ISPs are facing a big challenge in terms of keeping up with users bandwidth needs. In the next few years the average web user is going to shift from using one or two gigabytes of bandwidth a month, to using the same amount in the average day. For the ISPs this means a huge increase in the bandwidth they are going to be serving up.
Bandwidth, of course, lies in the hands of those who control the network fiber, and increasingly this is going to mean Google. The consequences are simple:
''We won't know if we're accessing the Internet or Google and for all practical purposes it won't matter. Google will become our phone company, our cable company, our stereo system and our digital video recorder. Soon we won't be able to live without Google, which will have marginalized the ISPs and assumed most of the market capitalization of all the service providers it has undermined -- about $1 trillion in all -- which places today's $500 Google share price about eight times too low.''
So, regardless of whether you trust the Google empire or not, chances are you are not going to have much of choice when it comes to going through them if you want to access the Internet, your phone, or television content.
Posing these questions with panache and style, the short film Master Plan pushes Googlephobia a step further, throwing up questions as to Google's dicing with DNA, and relationship with the CIA. This student film, put together by Olan Halici and Jurgen Mayer for their Bachelor's thesis, raises the bar and dares to ask the questions most of us would rather not think about:
Master Plan complete transcript
Google is the most powerful search engine on Earth.
Today, billions of users google for any kind of information. A former student’s project, now rules the World Wide Web. In 1997, Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed the so called “page rank”: a complex mathematical algorithm that ranks websites by their relevance.
This groundbreaking invention profoundly transformed access to information.
Google rapidly became the first choice for internet search. But, this was just the beginning. Today, Google ends huge profits by dominating online advertising; it is well on the way of becoming the most valuable company on the global market. But it isn’t just about money; these men pursue a great vision, a google master plan.
Any kind of information will be accessible to anybody controlled by Google itself, with the credo, “Don’t be evil”.
New features and products are constantly flying out of the Googleplex, all for free. Don’t you worry about your privacy? A perfect blend of software and hardware, called Googleware gives the company more computing power than anyone else.
Google stores the entire known web in its giant database, and there is more. Gmail offers 2.7 GB of free storage; it’s no secret. All your mails - including received mails from your friends - are scanned. Google is methodically collecting personal data in many more ways using cookies and account information merely to offer relevant text ads.
Google can create incredibly detailed dossiers on everyone of us. A former CIA agent claims that Google is cooperating under cover with the U.S government including the CIA. Through appearing to simply want the best for its users, Google has already begun to expand its online domination.
Total control, and not merely on the web. Google is conducting research in the fields of molecular biology and genetics. What if Google had an entire file on you? Even including your entire genetic data? Every human being would become completely transparent.
What do you think? Does Google really worry about our privacy?
As Web 2.0 evolves people are increasingly switching their work-based and personal communications to online applications, such as those offered by Google. In so doing, you can afford yourself new freedoms - the freedom to access our information regardless of where you are in the world, the freedom to collaborate with others from remote locations, the freedom to forget about how much space you have left on your hard drive or where you put that elusive file.
But in reaping the benefits of these new freedoms, you also put yourself at risk of being spied on, reported on and sold down the line by companies that will always put the bottom line before their customers. As Google grows from strength to strength as a provider of web services and applications, but also as an owner of all important bandwidth, it would make sense to take stock of their growing monopoly and consider the consequences of the deal you enter into when you make use of their free software.
Google, as a leader in the Web 2.0 landscape, is all about facilitating communication and the free flow of information. But where is all of the information flowing to, and is it always to your benefit? Or that of those who would control and catalogue our everyday lives?
While sincerely hoping that this isn't the case, it would be wise to allow for the possibility in our day to day actions online.
If you want to read more on the subject of Google and its master plan, you might want to visit the following websites:
Is Google Evil?, Adam L. Penenberg's investigative think-piece on the subject
I use Google Apps for hosted email as well as Google Docs and Spreadsheets.
After sending out a few emails to various vendors, I noticed my Documents’ Share permissions under “Collaborators” included those vendors emails! YIKES! Luckily, my Spreadsheets were not compromised, which included much more sensitive financial data.
This is a serious issue which is now resolved. It’s like giving your laptop or PC local administrative rights to the Domain Users group!
Security, uptime, and long term availability are the 3 biggest concerns for anyone entering the cloud.
And Google Docs product manager Jennifer Mazzon wrote on the blog that less than 0.05 of all the documents in Google Docs’ custody were impacted.
I don't worry about security issues GMail more than any other email service.
If you work for the CIA you probably use encryption or other ways than email.
Anyone can spy on your transfered files or messages on the web. How is the Chinese government doing?