Does Google Know Too Much About You?

Don’t Be Evil

Google has long said that it would support more robust laws protecting consumers’ privacy online, citing stronger consumer trust as one benefit. The company directs users toward the Data Liberation Front (, a site that shows consumers how to remove their data from various Google services. Google is also a member of Digital Due Process, a coalition whose goal is to update the Electronic Communications and Privacy Act (ECPA), which hasn’t seen many revisions since it was signed into law in 1986.

To say this law is outdated would be an understatement. While it prevents the likes of Google and Yahoo from distributing your e-mails to third parties, it doesn’t explicitly protect e-mail stored on servers such as Gmail, social networking data, information related to your mobile location, and other info stored in the cloud, such as photos and documents. While California, the state in which Google operates, requires Internet companies to have a privacy policy, the federal government does not. (Federal law does, however, compel companies to honor the privacy policies they do publish.)

Jim Dempsey, vice president of policy for the Center for Democracy and Technology, says that leaves us with a patchwork of federal and state laws. He looks toward the European Union, whose robust privacy laws allow consumers to see what data companies have collected and require companies to discard data once it’s no longer necessary for the purposes for which it was collected. Google tailors its privacy policy for each country in which it operates, so while European users enjoy these privileges, Americans don’t.

However, in the absence of such a law, Google isn’t taking extraordinary measures of its own. If it’s going to adhere to such rules, it would prefer that the likes of Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo had to follow them as well. “Google doesn’t want to tie its hands if its competitors are making money off of people’s information,” Dempsey said. That holds true even when privacy can be a selling point for a company such as Google. “It competes on privacy, but at the same time competition limits what it can do unless it is sure the competitors would be subject to the same limits,” he said.

As for Google’s current privacy measures, many privacy watchers say the company isn’t doing enough. Common complaints include the length of time the company holds onto data, as well as the fact that it only partially anonymizes identifying information, such as IP addresses, removing only the last set of digits. (For the record, Yahoo does this too.) “That doesn’t mean that we couldn’t easily reconstruct it, so even when it says it anonymizes search history data after nine months, that’s not completely accurate,” Rotenberg said. “What [Google is] really doing is making it more difficult to identify individual users.” Jeschke agrees, and adds that Google is keeping this data too long and should eventually discard it. Google, however, has plenty of reasons to hold on to data, at least for a while. For one, says a Google spokesperson, this improves the accuracy of Google’s search results. Not deleting data right away also helps the company prevent click fraud and web spam, in which less relevant sites attempt to cheat Google’s system to make their way to the top of the list.

Does Google Know Too Much About You?

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