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Caution, big brother is watching

Feb, 2008: It is bad enough if people peek into your private affairs. But it gets even worse if search engines start keeping record of all that you do. Waleed Zuberi explores Google.

First, imagine a 'googol' the numeral '1' followed by a 100 zeroes. Now imagine that number growing day by day; not mathematically, but rather influencing the world in general, and you specifically.

Have you ever wondered why 'Google' one of the biggest internet company is named after an abstract mathematical number? According to Google itself, "[its] use of the term reflects the company's mission to organise the immense, seemingly infinite amount of information available on the web." One may add that they have accomplished a large extent already; but for them search for information is a never-ending process.

Initially it was a simple search engine, called 'BackRub' in 1998 by Sergey Brin and Larry Page. But then, Google began to change the whole meaning of the uses of internet altogether, bringing people closer not only to friends and family, but to strangers all over the world as well.

"The perfect search engine," says Larry Page, "would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want." Over the years, Google has changed the way of searching on the web and confirms itself to be the fifth most valuable company in the US. It gives a novice step-by-step instructions on how to build a tree house to pirate PDFs of the latest bestseller.

Google is a giant that has the ability to ogle into almost everything around you and about you. Well, if you do not use internet, then this is something different. But if you actively participate online, you are bound to end up using one of Google's many services, and with it, you become a part of the ever-increasing database that contains much of everything you do online no one is unknown, even if they do not have a Google account.

So what exactly and how much does Google know about internet users? Pretty much everything you let it know. To get an idea, simply do a search on the web for your full name this is known as Googling yourself. If you use online services like MySpace, LinkedIn, Blogger (which belongs to Google, by-the-way), Digg, Flickr or Wikipedia to name a few, your profile pages will come up. With enough time and dedication, anybody who knows how can compile an accurate sketch of who you are, what you do and what interests you.

Now bearing in mind the impressive number of services that Google offers, rest assured, it knows all about how many friends you have through Orkut, how you look like through Picasa, what kind of videos you watch through Youtube, and finally, who you send e-mail to, through Gmail. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

With other less known services like Web History, Desktop Search, Notes and Browser Sync, using Google effectively means telling them everything about you. With Web History enabled, Google logs all of your searches for later viewing, and if you use the Google Toolbar with History enabled, all of the websites you visit are also logged, along with your activity on those sites.

If you use Desktop Search and choose to 'search across computers', your local indexed files will be saved on Google's server for you to access anytime from any other authorised computer.

If you use Browser Sync, with the default settings, your browser configuration, cookies, saved passwords and history is encrypted and saved in Google so you can synchronise all your system with the same browser settings. If you shop online with Google Checkout, they know your name, address, credit card information and also, what you have bought from it.

If you own any websites or domains, Google knows about them as well. How? Early in 2005, Google became officially accredited as a domain name registrar, and so got access to all of the 'WHOIS' (ownership) information for every domain name on the internet. What this means is that Google knows which dot com belongs to whom, and they apparently use this information to gauge if you are dishonest in using services like AdSense.

Furthermore, a radical new service, 23andMe, offers an extensive analysis of your DNA for 999 dollars. Although not owned or operated by Google, 23andMe is still partly funded by them, and one of its co-founders, Anne Wojcicki, is married to Sergey Brin.

Its founders say the data in their system is completely secure and protected. "The data will not leave 23andMe," says co-founder Linda Avey, and although Google will not possess your genetic information even if you choose to buy this service, it raises yet another question mark on how safe the internet is.

Accordingly, we willingly or unwillingly know that Google knows a lot about us but do we know if they have stored the information or are analysing and compiling those enormous reports on every user?

Given a huge number of users - Google has around 380million unique users per month as of 2005 alone (Nielsen/Net Ratings 8/05) it is safe enough to say that there are less chances that a Google employee would be monitoring all your online activities and enjoying your personal collection of photos. Since Google's privacy policy rules this probability out; the document, although a hefty read, ensures a user's information protection and addresses many privacy concerns that a user may have, albeit in a somewhat confusing manner if you are unfamiliar with legal text.

But what if the government or perhaps an individual comes up with a court order to release all (or even some) of your user information from Google? We know the data is there, and Google may be legally bound to abide by such orders. That just-for-fun search you did on how to assemble an AK-47, does not seem funny now!

In December 2006, vulnerability was discovered in Gmail that enabled malicious websites to steal a user's entire address book without warning. If you were signed in to Gmail when visiting the site, a nicely formatted XML document containing all your contact's e-mails could be mailed to the hacker in seconds, and you would not even know it. Thankfully, just hours after being discovered, the gap was promptly plugged, and although its existence did raise an alarm in many users' minds about their data's security, it was some consolation that the Google Security team was fast at hand to take care of such problems.

The privacy advocates are constantly slamming Google for their data retention policies and 'Privacy International', an internet watchdog group has deemed G to be 'Hostile to Privacy,' which is the lowest rating in the watchdog's 2007 Consultation report.

However, it is not just Google that is keeping tabs on what its users do online. Yahoo! for instance, one of Google's biggest competitors, also offers services that collect sensitive information that may one day haunt the user. Popular bookmarking site Del.icio.us is a place to store your favourite sites; you can upload personal pictures to Flickr; Yahoo! Jobs, Yahoo! Mail and Yahoo! Shopping pose equally obvious threats to a user's privacy if compromised.

Optimists argue that Google and Yahoo! both know what you let them know, and with the right measures, your personal information can be safeguarded from prying eyes. Today, online services such as Google and Yahoo! have become a commonplace and it is hard for some people to imagine internet without them.

Perhaps the best way to get the best of both worlds is to be more careful with what one does online. There is no doubt that Google has redefined and transformed the internet in ways that has never been thought before. To-do lists, personal appointments and corporate documents are now all managed online, and while this makes life far easier.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that Google has become one of the necessities of the internet world, and whether you trust enough to use it whole-heartedly or not is entirely up to you. There is no practical advice to be given when it comes to using such online services, because each user's needs vary, and so does their trust in technology. Dawn
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