Google knows a lot about you, will soon know more, and might already know more than you think. If that sounds like hyperbole, consider that a Google engineer was fired this September after he was busted for months of spying on four teenagers’ Gmail and Google Talk accounts. Even Eric Schmidt, the company’s CEO, recently admitted, “We know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are.” In the same interview, he imagined a world in which young people would be entitled to change their names upon reaching adulthood so as to disown their adolescent antics cataloged online. Schmidt would later say he was joking.
As it happens, Google doesn’t manage a social network, save for the ill-received Buzz, but rumors suggest that will change: The company could soon launch a full-blown Facebook rival. Google’s CEO has also said the company wants to get its hands on Facebook users’ contact lists so the company can better add social layers to Google. But even now, privacy advocates are disturbed by the information Google is collecting—along with the company’s murky explanations. This year the German government discovered that in collecting images for Street View, the company was also intercepting and storing Wi-Fi data, including network names tied to locations and information sent over these networks, such as passwords.
Google maintains it collected this data unknowingly. In fact, it has consistently lobbied for stronger privacy laws. And yet, questions about the data Google collects, how long it stores it, and what it uses it for are harder to answer.