April 5, 2013 6:01 pm

Google revolution isn’t worth our privacy

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This is a future we would be wise to avoid, writes Evgeny Morozov

Let’s give credit where it is due: Google is not hiding its revolutionary ambitions. As its co-founder Larry Page put it in 2004, eventually its search function “will be included in people’s brains” so that “when you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information”.

Science fiction? The implant is a rhetorical flourish but Mr Page’s utopian project is not a distant dream. In reality, the implant does not have be connected to our brains. We carry it in our pockets – it’s called a smartphone.

So long as Google can interpret – and predict – our intentions, Mr Page’s vision of a continuous and frictionless information supply could be fulfilled. However, to realise this vision, Google needs a wealth of data about us. Knowing what we search for helps – but so does knowing about our movements, our surroundings, our daily routines and our favourite cat videos.

Some of this information has been collected through our browsers but in a messy, disaggregated form. Back in 1996, Google didn’t set out with a strategy for world domination. Its acquisition of services such as YouTube was driven by tactics more than strategy. While it was collecting a lot of data from its many services, from email to calendar, such data were kept in separate databases – which made the implant scenario hard to accomplish.

Thus, when last year Google announced its privacy policy, which would bring the data collected through its more than 60 online services under one roof, the move made business sense. The obvious reason for doing so is to make individual user profiles even more appealing to advertisers: when Google tracks you it can predict what ads to serve you much better than when it tracks you only across one such service.

But there is another reason, of course – and it has to do with the Grand Implant Agenda: the more Google knows about us, the easier it can make predictions about what we want – or will want in the near future. Google Now, the company’s latest offering, is meant to do just that: by tracking our every email, appointment and social networking activity, it can predict where we need to be, when, and with whom. Perhaps, it might even order a car to drive us there – the whole point is to relieve us of active decision-making. The implant future is already here – it’s just not evenly resisted.

This week, data protection authorities from six European countries showed some such resistance when they announced an effort to investigate if Google’s policy violates their national privacy laws. This announcement follows several months of consultation – preceded by a letter that EU data regulators sent to Mr Page in October – which yielded little response from Google. The letter urged the company to disclose how it processes personal data in each service and to clarify why and how it combines data that come from its multiple services.

Google believes it has met all the formal requirements on announcing the policy back in 2012. Under the current legal regime, Google, even if fined, doesn’t stand to lose much from these investigations. However, if the recent proposal to create a new single EU data regulator that can fine companies up to 2 per cent of their global turnover goes through, it might present Google with a bill as high as $1bn, if any breaches were found. Even if their investigations fail, European regulators must be applauded for embarking on a mission that their colleagues across the Atlantic wouldn’t even dare contemplate.

Europe, with its unflinching defence of privacy as a fundamental human value, cannot afford to act disjointedly – not at a time when the most powerful company in Silicon Valley is amassing a fleet of self-driving cars and releasing Google Glass, a line of smart glasses that some privacy advocates rightfully compare to stylish CCTV cameras that, for reasons unknown, we have accepted to wear on our heads.

Google’s intrusion into the physical world means that, were its privacy policy to stay in place and cover self-driving cars and Google Glass, our internet searches might be linked to our driving routes, while our favourite cat videos might be linked to the actual cats we see in the streets. It also means that everything that Google already knows about us based on our search, email and calendar would enable it to serve us ads linked to the actual physical products and establishments we encounter via Google Glass.

For many this may be a very enticing future. We can have it, but we must also find a way to know – in great detail, not just in summary form – what happens to our data once we share it with Google, and to retain some control over what it can track and for how long.

It would also help if one could drive through the neighbourhood in one of Google’s autonomous vehicles without having to log into Google Plus, the company’s social network, or any other Google service.

The European regulators are not planning to thwart Google’s agenda or nip innovation in the bud. This is an unflattering portrayal that might benefit Google’s lobbying efforts but has no bearing in reality. Quite the opposite: it is only by taking full stock of the revolutionary nature of Google’s agenda that we can get the company to act more responsibly towards its users.

Engineering, as the tech historian Ken Alder once put it, “operates on a simple, but radical assumption: that the present is nothing more than the raw material from which to construct a better future”. This might well be the case but not all raw materials are alike; if European history teaches us anything, it’s that some raw materials – and privacy is certainly among them – are worth cherishing and preserving in their own right, even if it means that the much-anticipated future will take somewhat more effort and energy to construct. A revolutionary future built on shaky foundations: to that, we must say a resounding No.

The writer is author of ‘To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism’

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