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.
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
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
"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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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