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Essay: Google's policies on privacy

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A privacy policy provides insight into the views of a company, and defines the procedures that govern the assortment and use of information collected from its Internet visitors. Although they are legal documents, privacy policies should be comprehensible, precise, and should avoid cloaking crucial information inside of ‘reams of text’. Google’s policies, those of any other corporation, are liable to changes over time. Changes such as the 2012 consolidation of Google’s privacy policies and data sharing across all of its services reaped a good deal of debate. However, a more intriguing avenue of discussion is why Google made such a move. That speculation started by the 2011 arrangement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding allegedly deceitful tactics in the implementation of Google Buzz, a social networking project that had migrated to become Google+. By briefly analyzing the chronicles of Google and its policies, Google’s emphasis on and consideration of user privacy can be placed in context. This context can better illuminate the consolidated policy in light of the FTC settlement agreement. This paper presents a brief history of Google leading up to and the aftermath of the privacy policy unification. It will take a glimpse at Google’s policies and stance brought forth against and cooperations with governments. Furthermore, it will examine the components of individual services offered by the technological giant. Lastly, a discussion and conclusion to question the impact, assurances, and choices that accompany the changes, and how one’s anonymity is enriching the currency of an information economy.
On March 1st 2012, Google implemented a new, unified privacy policy, which affected data that Google had collected from its users: to create a complete profile of individuals. Previously, user’s web history was cordoned off from Google’s other products (Galperin, 2012). This protection was crucial because search data can reveal particularly sensitive information about individuals; including facts about their ‘location, age, interests, religion, health, sexual orientation concerns’ (Galperin, 2012). Google’s services such as web search, Docs, Gmail, news, Adsense and YouTube, would forthwith be able to coordinate mutually to create a profile for a user (Google, 2015): revealing particularly sensitive information about that individual. Eric Schmidt, the abiding CEO, stated that ‘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 in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities” (Metz, 2009). Often, individuals do a lot of things online that they wish to keep it a secret ‘ for example, visiting non-mainstream political sites (for which the government might want to know about) and looking up signs of diseases (that they wish to keep private). While a substantial majority of Internet users oppose a data collection of this sort, Google holds contradictory beliefs, the amassing of user information is ‘marketing gold’: it can be used to direct ‘behavioral advertising’ at Internet users, focused on very specifically to their tastes (Cohen, 2012). In 2012, Netherland’s data protection agency (DPA) has found that the unified privacy policy has violated Dutch privacy laws (Robertson, 2013). The DPA stated that “the combining of data by Google from and about multiple services and third-party websites for the purpose of displaying personalized ads, personalization of services, product development and analytics constitutes a major intrusion into the privacy of the users involved” (Robertson, 2013). Because of Google’s size, the DPA stated it is practically hopeless for a Dutch individual to evade being tracked in some way, whether through search or cookies from a site using Google’s ad platform. While Google has argued that it has genuine reasons to gather this data, the DPA asserts that it has inadequate safeguards for using the least possible amount of information needed and that it doesn’t get substantial consent from individuals (Robertson, 2013).
When it comes to fighting governments on privacy, Google is not a newcomer. It has previously sued the government multiple times over privacy and data issues (Al Jazeera, 2013). Recently, Google has launched a campaign against the United States government over the drafted change to a criminal proceeding rule which would endow the United States government to observe on and transpire into the computer devices and networks from all around the world (Salgado, 2015). The technological revision would allow United States government agencies to get verdicts to operate ‘remote access’ searches of mobile devices and computers if the United States government’s physical position is ‘concealed through technological means’ (Salgado, 2015). The technology giant believes that this revision would undercut users’ rights to privacy and security, harm the United States’ relationships with countries borne out of agreements to collaborate in cross-border investigations, and concern over the use of technologies such as Virtual Private Network (VPN) would no longer guard the individuals’ location. However, the company diverges the battle to support privacy when a law is being passed to benefit the company. One of the more recent examples is Google’s support of the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) in 2013 (Smith, 2013). A proposed law in the United States that would allow for the allocation of Internet traffic data between the United States government and the technology and manufacturing companies. Google stated that it “recognizes the need for effective cybersecurity legislation that encourages voluntary, bi-directional, real-time sharing of actionable cyber threat information to protect networks” (Mayer, 2013).
The technology giant has had many issues with European Union’s privacy laws. Most notably, the EU has asked the company to justify its policy of preserving information on users’ internet web searches for up to two years. The courts found that Google was not abiding by European privacy law. The court case Google Spain SL, Google Inc. v Agencia Espa??ola de Protecci??n de Datos, Mario Costeja Gonz??lez (Gonz??lez, 2014) made the decision (by the Court of Justice of the European Union) that stated that users had the right to influence what the internet community could determine about them through online searches, a ruling that abandoned accepted notions about the free flow of information on the Internet. The courts ruled that users had the right to be ‘forgotten’ after a perceivable time by eliminating any links associated with the user to web pages unless there are ‘particular reasons’ not to (Streitfeld, 2014). While Google’s response was that the ruling was ‘disappointing’ and that the technological company was ‘very surprised’ (Streitfeld, 2014), the ruling was fundamental win for the rights to the protection of personal data. Although the changes would increase a person’s online privacy, eliminating historical poor judgements such as a businessman ability to expunge a link to his or hers bankruptcy a decade ago, it could also be used to erase information that is detrimental but is unquestionably accurate.
Gmail, the company’s primary email service, has come under fire from privacy groups. Advertising is the privacy issues with the email service; when a user logs into Gmail to retrieve and view their email, the service automatically scans the contents of the email and displays a relevant advertisement on the screen for them to see. In 2004, Democratic Senator Liz Figueroa, who calls Gmail “an invasion of privacy,” drafted a bill to stop the email service. The problem, Senator Figueroa asserted, was that Google’s intentions were to profit from its internet users: targetting and scanning their incoming e-mail for targeted advertising (Google’s Gmail could be blocked, 2004). While the bill never made it past the initial stages, in 2013, Consumer Watchdog uncovered filings by Google that ‘admitted they don’t respect privacy,” (Rushe, 2013) gathering information and reading emails from both Gmail and non-Gmail clients to service their advertising network. A lawsuit was filed by the Customer Watchdog accusing the technology giant of breaking laws when it examines emails sent from non-Google accounts in order to target ads to Gmail users. Google responded with “all users of email must necessarily expect that their emails will be subject to automated processing (Rushe, 2013). The issue can be illustrated with a simple post office analogy — one can expect that the post office will be able to deliver a letter based on the address that is written on the envelope. However, we don’t expect that the mail carrier will open our letters and read it before being delivered.
The Google Chrome has become popular over the years and monopolizing the browser industry in most countries around the world (StatCounter, 2015). However, the appalling fact is that the browser is recording and storing every keystroke that a person types, regardless of whether the person hits the search button or not. Furthermore, the company also saves the individual’s Internet Protocol Address (IP), narrowing the location of that individual to an area (Thompson, 2008). The company can amass more information about the individual without that individual ever using any of the other Google services. Pressure from Consumer Watchdog and other privacy groups forced Google to release the “incognito mode” in Chrome, which suppositionally preserves the user’s anonymity. According to the company, the incognito window will stop tracking on the user’s browser, but the websites that the user visits can still monitor and store your information. Furthermore Bryan (2013) has found that Chrome browser settings are far from a guarantee of anonymity and that the “do not track” feature on Chrome are no more than suggestions that can remain being ignored. Moreover, Google’s Incognito mode does not provide individuals with anonymous website access.
Google is not likely to be replaced anytime soon. What is concerning, is the policy’s influence on the privacy of Google individuals and the plausibility that these policies will not only remain along the identical trajectory but will also ripple beyond to other service providers. Individuals are never under any commitment to use any of Google’s services. For every service produced by Google, alternatives are readily available. Some individuals will use the latest policy as a cause to seek services from an alternative provider. Even then, the alternative provider may very well have policies modeled after Google’s, or perhaps offer even limited protection for individuals’ anonymity. Is it a valid point to make that individuals of Google’s services are not paying for the services, or are they in fact paying with a new kind of currency: their anonymity? Is it also possible to be absolutely anonymous in the ever-connected existence of the Internet? If we are handling our identities as reimbursement for services administered, how can we determine if we are getting what we pay for: How can we accurately measure the value of this new currency? When technology companies record online activities, privacy problems emanate in all directions. These companies have the potential to sell personal data to people who are capable of doing harmful actions with it ‘ including employers, who could apply the data to investigate thoroughly potential hires. This kind of data can quickly end up in the control of a government, which can warrant it from the technological companies ‘ and suddenly, we are are living a 1984 world.

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