"Google - The company everyone loves knows more about you than you realize."
January 20, 2005
IS THERE A company anywhere within these United States with a better public image than Google has? We love it. We need it. We use it - more than 200 million times a day, by some accounts. The unofficial slogan - "Don't Be Evil" - epitomizes everything we want in a business relationship. And more often than not, Google lives up to those words.
But there is another side to Google, and it's one that the company would just as soon you not think about. It's what happens each and every time you look up a piece of information. An old boyfriend. A political organization you heard mentioned on television the night before. A possible vacation spot. Or maybe you're a student trying to track down a terrorist group's Web site for a paper you're writing. Or a church elder who likes to look at hard-core pornography. Or you're seeking information on how to grow your own marijuana. Who knows?
Google knows. According to Lauren Weinstein, an Internet activist and privacy expert based in Southern California, Google keeps track of every search that's made, as well as the Internet location of the computer from which the search is taking place - and then it stores that information for possible future use. Moreover, he says, it would not be terribly difficult to trace those searches to the person who made them. That's you and me.
Such tracking is common on the Internet, of course. Amazon.com knows what kinds of books and music you like, and it puts those products in front of your eyeballs at every opportunity. Internet-service providers such as America Online and Microsoft's MSN collect enormous amounts of data about their customers. Same with Yahoo!, which - with personalized services such as My Yahoo! - is also more zealous than Google about trying to get its customers to sign up and thus identify themselves.
For all anyone knows, Google is handling private information more responsibly than many other corporations are. So why single out the Internet company everyone loves? For two reasons: first, it's so ubiquitous that it's the only online service that virtually all of us use regularly - 10, 20, 50 times a day; and second, the famously sparse user interface exudes an aura of anonymity. You don't have to register - you're not even asked to register - for the basic Google services we use all the time, such as searching for Web sites, news, and pictures. At Amazon, you know you're being watched. But you might be surprised to learn that Google is watching, too. ...
...WEINSTEIN, THE motorcycle-riding co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility, first publicly questioned Google's privacy practices last month with a post on his weblog (lauren.vortex.com) titled "The Dark Side of Google." Among other things, he wrote, "Google has created a growing information repository of a sort that CIA and NSA (and the old KGB) would probably envy and covet in no uncertain terms - and Google's data is virtually without outside oversight or regulation."
Here's how it works, according to Weinstein. Every computer attached to the Internet has something called an "Internet protocol," or IP, address, which is a string of four numbers separated by decimal points. At work, your IP address is likely that of your company's dedicated network; it never changes, and anyone who obtained that IP address would be able to trace it back to your workplace, if not necessarily to your desk. At home, if you're using an Internet-service provider such as AOL or EarthLink, you have what's known as a "dynamic" IP address - that is, your IP address changes on a fairly regular basis. Still, a Google search could be traced back to you if someone knew you were using a particular IP address at a particular time - information that Google does not have, but that your Internet provider does. Someone armed with a subpoena - say, an FBI agent who's curious about your interest in chemical warfare, or your soon-to-be-ex spouse's divorce lawyer - could pay a visit to your Internet provider to find out who was using what IP address when....
Perhaps none of this is particularly surprising. But Weinstein offers an additional wrinkle that ought to give anyone reason to pause: he claims Google is actually storing all this stuff so that it can go back and conduct, say, market research or develop new products. Or, you know, respond to that subpoena. This struck me as truly innovative and troublesome, so I asked Weinstein how he knows this. ...
Now, it wouldn't be fair to disparage Google on the basis of anonymous information once removed. But the thing is, the company doesn't deny it. I sent an e-mail to Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel and a person who had been described to me as the company's privacy guru, someone who's enlightened about such issues. But rather than respond, he forwarded my e-mail to the company's public-relations staff. After several days of polite back-and-forth, company spokesman Steve Langdon sent me an e-mail statement that I quote in its entirety: "Privacy is an issue about which Google cares very much. In all the products we develop, we pay very close attention to how the products and their features relate to user privacy and we make design decisions and policies to protect privacy. Google also provides users with information about privacy in our privacy policies that are posted on our web site."
That's true. The most relevant part of that policy would appear to be this: "Google collects limited non-personally identifying information your browser makes available whenever you visit a website. This log information includes your Internet Protocol address, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your query and one or more cookies that may uniquely identify your browser. We use this information to operate, develop and improve our services." But claiming that your IP address and cookies are "non-personally identifying information" is, at best, a gross underestimate about what a skilled investigator could do with it.
"When you amalgamate all the results of this sort of tracking, especially if you've got a dedicated IP address where people can zero in on a specific household, a remarkably clear picture of who you are and what you think and what you believe" can be assembled, says Steven Rambam, a private investigator based in New York who uses online databases for much of his work. "Everything that you're interested in and everything that your daily life is focused on can be recorded and tracked back to a particular machine." (And, as we've seen, even a dynamic IP address is no protection if your Internet-service provider can be compelled to turn over its records.)
Last July, for NPR's On the Media program, Rambam demonstrated how easy it is. From public records within minutes he had found co-host Brooke Gladstone's number, previous addresses, how much she had paid for her current house, even the name of her sister. Rambam told me that he supports the idea of public information being publicly available. (One fun fact he dug up last year: liberal activist Michael Moore was registered to vote in two states, Michigan and New York.) "Frankly, I think the average person has a right to see if their nanny used to be a child molester, if their tenant stiffed the previous three landlords," Rambam says. "There has to be an intelligent balance, and I think that's where we're at right now."
Gladstone, who was on the receiving end of Rambam's investigative efforts, told me that she felt "a kind of generalized queasiness, a kind of tightening in the pit of my stomach" to see how easy it was to dig up personal information about her. She adds, "I suppose you could go off the grid, but that's just not the way most of us want to live. ... ...
... ...Google, like the Internet, has made our lives easier and arguably better. For many of us, it's impossible to imagine having to return to a time when we couldn't find almost any piece of information instantaneously. But we're paying a price for that. We're paying with our privacy, our identity. For someone determined to look, there are no secrets anymore.
Sometime late tonight, someone, somewhere, will visit Google or Yahoo! or MSN or whatever and start searching for something he hopes no one will ever find out about. But he is being watched. Not by humans. Not in such a way that his search can be automatically traced back to him. Still, it's all being recorded, and the pieces are there, so that someday, someone with the necessary incentive, skill, and legal authority can put them all together and figure out who this person is. Perhaps a life will be saved. Perhaps a life will be ruined - tragically, unnecessarily. But that's the nature of the new world in which we live.
It's a chilling reality.
(NOTE: Pallorium hostsGorillaTrace.com, an anonymous password-protected Internet metasearch engine customized for use by investigative professionals.)