The End of Privacy

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST

A few days ago Google announced a new privacy policy: If you're signed into any Google service, the information that Google collects from you can be combined with information from every other Google service to build a gigantic profile of your activities and preferences. On Tuesday I wrote that I was pretty unhappy about this, and a lot of people wanted to know why. After all, Google says this new policy will mean a better computing experience for everyone:

Our recently launched personal search feature is a good example of the cool things Google can do when we combine information across products. Our search box now gives you great answers not just from the web, but your personal stuff too…But there's so much more that Google can do to help you by sharing more of your information with…well, you. We can make search better—figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too. For example, it's January, but maybe you're not a gym person, so fitness ads aren't that useful to you. We can provide reminders that you're going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day.

So what's my problem? Easy. In that mass of good news, the real reason for Google's announcement was stuffed quietly into the middle: "We can provide more relevant ads too."

This is so obvious that no one even paid attention to it. Of course Google wants to target its ads better. That's where most of its revenue comes from. Yawn.

So again: What's my problem? Why do I care if Google serves up ads that are a little more suited to my tastes? The truth is that I don't. What I do care about, though, is the obvious corollary: Google's main purpose in life, as you'd expect from any big, public company, is making money. And the way they make money is by helping third parties sell you stuff. Here, then, is the nut of the thing, from the same blog post announcing the new privacy policy:

Finally, what we're not changing. We remain committed to data liberation, so if you want to take your information elsewhere you can. We don't sell your personal information, nor do we share it externally without your permission…

Do you find that reassuring? I decidedly don't. If Google can change its privacy policy today, it can change it tomorrow. And it will. No company is an unstoppable juggernaut forever, and Google is already showing signs of becoming an ordinary corporation that has to scrap for profits just like everyone else. This is what's motivating their policy change this week, and someday it's likely to motivate them to sell my personal information after all.

It won't be mandatory, of course. If I want to close my Google accounts, they'll let me. But if I use an Android smartphone—and this is plainly one of the primary targets of Google's new policy—that will be pretty hard. And after years of using Google products like Gmail and YouTube, it's not as easy as it sounds to simply export all your data and move to a new platform. In reality, very few people will do this. Google is counting on the fact that they'll grumble a bit, like I'm doing, and then get on with their lives.

And maybe I should too. That's certainly the primary advice I got after writing Tuesday's post. Perhaps, as David Brin has been telling us for years, traditional notions of privacy are going away whether we like it or not, so we might as well like it. Complaining about it won't do us any more good than complaining about the end of transatlantic ocean liners or old-time radio shows.

And yet…I'm just not there yet. It's bad enough that Google can build up a massive and—if we're honest, slightly scary—profile of my activities, but it will be a lot worse when Google and Facebook and Procter & Gamble all get together to merge these profiles into a single uber-database and then sell it off for a fee to anyone with a product to hawk. Or any government agency that thinks this kind of information might be pretty handy.

So that's why I'm unhappy. I don't believe for a second that Google's policy against selling personal information will last forever. Maybe I should just relax and accept that this is the direction the world is going, but for now I think I'll continue to fight it.

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