On any given day, we upload photos to Facebook, unknowingly making them visible to more than just our friends. We search for esoteric factoids on Wikipedia, transfer money between bank accounts, scour Amazon for good deals, and a combined 635 million people check their e-mail via Yahoo Mail and MSN Hotmail. We enter giveaways, add ourselves to our favorite stores’ e-mail lists, and acquiesce to license agreements that we never read every time we download a new version of iTunes. Why, then, are people so wary of Google?
For one thing, says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Google rules the web. The company has the world’s most popular search engine, the third largest e-mail service, the fastest-growing mobile OS in Android, and the increasingly popular Chrome browser. Google is also a purveyor of maps so popular that you can find them on almost every mobile device, including Android’s rival, the iPhone. And thanks to Google Latitude, as well as mobile services such as Buzz, it even knows where you are. “It’s completely appropriate to focus on Google’s practices as opposed to many other smaller companies because Google’s have the greatest implications for Internet users,” Rotenberg says.
Rebecca Jeschke, media relations director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, adds that Google has access to a wealth of revealing information that companies such as Facebook don’t. “Your collection of things that you searched for in the past day, week, month, year, says really intimate things about what you do and what you’re interested in and what worries you,” she said. “Google can tell if you’re sick, what kinds of diseases you might be worried about, if you’re single looking for a date, if you’re married looking for a date.”
Google has also drawn criticism for employing its users’ information in ways they did not sign up for. For example, when the company launched Buzz, its social network that attempted to cobble together the best of Facebook and Twitter status updates, the service was turned on in Gmail users’ inboxes by default. Moreover, it automatically followed users’ e-mail contacts. “It’s basically a company being unfair and deceptive,” Rotenberg said.
In fact, EPIC has filed three complaints about Google with the FTC that take on Google’s launch of Buzz, the necessity for encrypting e-mail, and the company’s admission that its Google Street View vans intercepted Wi-Fi data. Even though Google claims the Wi-Fi info collection was accidental, various governments remain skeptical; 38 states and 14 countries have launched investigations, and two, Greece and Austria, have imposed sanctions. Since Street View launched, the company has begun blurring faces and license plates captured in its images, and has lowered its cameras in Japan in response to complaints that Google could snap photos of activity taking place behind, say, homeowners’ fences. (The FTC did not respond to a request for comment.)