Google isn’t the problem; you are


© Fotum | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

I really enjoy Bojan’s posts on Alpha Efficiency, and his recent mini series on Going Cold Turkey on Google got me thinking about all things privacy, enough so to make me wander off-topic and pull together this post.

I’m not pro-state-controlled databases, nor am I in the “the innocent have nothing to hide” camp. But the more I think about the privacy concerns Bojan (and no doubt others) are trying to address the more I come to the following conclusion:

It’s too late.

The Alpha Efficiency series focuses on reducing the number of hooks Google has into you and you’d be forgiven for thinking this wouldn’t be a bad thing. Take my experience for example. I use:

  • Google Reader
  • Gmail
  • Google Calendar
  • Chrome (iOS and Mac OS)
  • Google Webmaster Tools
  • Google Authenticator i=(iOS)
  • Google Search

But the more I thought about Bojan’s call to end my relationship with Google, the more I got to thinking about the other big organisations with stacks of my data lying around:

  • T-Mobile UK (Mobile Phone Provider)
  • Virgin Media (ISP)
  • Tesco Clubcard (supermarket)
  • My bank
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Apple
  • Evernote
  • Crashplan
  • Dropbox

The list goes on and on. In every case I have surrendered some (or you might argue all) of my rights to personal privacy or anonymity in exchange for a streamlined and/or integrated service (or in Tesco’s case in exchange for cold, hard cash).

“seeing it in black and white is quite scary…But will I be cancelling my mobile phone contract as a result? Nosirree”

It might sound like a defeatist argument, but I think that a strategic withdrawal from one of these services (i.e. Google) is a drop in the ocean; it moves me no further forward (relatively speaking) to achieving privacy and/or anonymity and I have to sacrifice what I consider to be some of the best social and productivity tools out there to do it.

I came across a TED talk on mobile phone privacy that is aimed at highlighting the need to keep fighting for your privacy, but in my case it underlined the sheer futility of it all. In six months Malte Spitz’s Telephone company (Deutsche Telekom) gathered 35,000 lines of data on his mobile phone usage. Enough to track his whereabouts, who he called etc etc. I think intuitively I knew this was possible (I’ve watched CSI, I know the drill) and probably that it happens, but seeing it in black and white is quite scary.

But will I be cancelling my mobile phone contract as a result? Nosirree. The value I place on having the world at my fingertips far outstrips my outrage that out there in the ether is 35,000 lines+ of data that describes my life in scary detail.

The same goes for my ISP – I sacrifice complete control over my data in exchange for superfast broadband – and (perhaps to a lesser extent) the same goes for other media services like Netflix, which will have a good idea of my location based on where I access their services in addition to my browsing habits.

By choosing to have a credit card I am granting my bank (or other financial institution) access to a wealth of data on my shopping habits and personal preferences (some are better positioned than others to commercialise this data). By handing over my Clubcard at every trip to Tesco I am effectively saying “please analyse and cross-reference every purchase.” To Tesco offering me 1% cash back (to spend at Tesco, of course) on my purchases must seem like a bargain in exchange for all that data.

“For me the fundamental issue is that I place an inherently low premium on privacy and a relatively high one on convenience.”

The same is true of the mainstream cloud services – I offer my data willingly to services like Evernote and Dropbox because they offer me convenience and easy access; there is a degree to which I must trust them not to share my information with the Russian Mafia or spam list operators but fundamentally I accept that I have little control over whether they honour the promises they may or may not have made (the Electronic Frontier Foundation has an interesting infographic of the more recognised players entitled “who has your back?”

For me the fundamental issue is that I place an inherently low premium on privacy and a relatively high one on convenience. I expect not to be defrauded and take steps to prevent this by not recycling passwords (I recommend 1password unless you have a photographic memory), being vigilant to suspect sites and phishing etc. but outside of these basic foundations I regularly offer companies information about myself, or access to my data, in exchange for exciting and/or convenient products and services.

If the argument that you (and your innately low sense of privacy) are to blame doesn’t persuade you not to opt out of Google, consider how much information is gathered that is outside of your control. In the UK you are likely to be captured on CCTV an average of 70 times per day; your employer likely as not has complete access to your emails (and more) and Google has probably already taken photos of your front garden for Street View. Your name and address are on the electoral roll (and you probably forgot to opt out of allowing it to be accessible to anyone), an average user can find out how much you paid for your house with a few clicks and your vehicle movement details (captured every time you drive past an ANPR or average speed camera) are stored for 2 years.

In the UK you are likely to be captured on CCTV an average of 70 times per day.”

For any diehard conspiracy theorists I will leave you with this last infographic from Infographic on Privacy from WordStream – If this doesn’t have you hiding under your bed with a tinfoil hat on nothing will.


Google Data Centre – Source: Wired Magazine

Wired article on Google Data Centre


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