Is there such a thing as privacy in the age of Google?

by: Bogdan PetrovanJanuary 17, 2014

Friday Debate aa (1)

In this edition of the Friday Debate, we talk about a controversial issue that has divided users and spurred dozens of posts and articles across the web in the last weeks – privacy and Google. Long simmering tensions have boiled over once again when Google announced its email through Google Plus feature last week. Then, when news broke that Nest, the smart thermostat company, was acquired by Google, some people vocally expressed their disdain. The announcement of Google’s smart contact lenses, no matter how benign their applications, generated more anguish for people that think Google is getting too big and too all-seeing.

Are you worried that Google is using your data in potentially nefarious ways? Or is it privacy a concept we all need to leave behind, a relic of a slower, less connected world? Even if you don’t give your data to Google, what options do you have if you want to live a modern digital lifestyle?

Join us in the discussion, vote in our poll, and sound off in the comments!

Robert Triggs

A controversial topic, I like it. First let’s try and put some perspective on this. Handing out personal information isn’t anything new, every utility company you deal with knows your address, your bank calculates your income, and your doctor knows all your ailments. We don’t classify this as a lack or invasion of privacy, mainly because we receive something valuable in exchange. Google, Facebook, etc, are no different.

The evil corporation fantasy is just that, a delusion. Case in point, the Google Nest outcry is a complete red herring. We don’t even know what Google’s going to do yet, and whatever it is you don’t have to buy it. As far as I see it, the worst case scenario is that you start receiving targeting advertisements for sweaters because Google thinks your thermostat is too low. How dystopian!

That isn’t to say that a company, individual, or government for that matter, has a right to your information simply because you use the internet. You should be free to share as much or as little as you want, and many choose to share far too much. Now if Google was too circumvent an agreement then that’s a very different matter, tantamount to theft in my opinion. However, most companies are very open and reasonable about what they collect.

Now there are more legitimate privacy concerns to be had when it comes to governments and other organizations that covertly steal data. Energy would be much better expended on those targets than worrying about companies that wish to trade us something for personal data.

It’s certainly harder than ever to avoid services that collect your data, but I don’t think that privacy can ever be considered dead until we are forced to part with details about our lives.

Darcy LaCouvee

Hold on, let me remove my tinfoil hat. Ahem.

Privacy is, for all intents and purposes, dead. It’s common knowledge among educated circles that the NSA, and by extension, the US government, has access to virtually all electronically recorded data.

People claim to care, and there is the occasional public outcry, but this is a pebble drop in an ocean compared to the billions of people that give up their personal data on a daily basis (myself included) How paranoid do you want to be?

Unfortunately, the forces that be have purposefully weakened encryption to the point where there can be no guarantees of privacy. As computing gets cheaper, more will be known about us. If history has taught any of us a lesson it’s that absolute power corrupts, absolutely.

Sadly, it’s only a matter of time before more of the databases are merged, and we as individuals are assigned a risk matrix based off our associations, our ideologies, and our behavioural patterns. I’ve nothing to fear because I do nothing wrong – right? Wrong. The very fact that I’m writing this publicly could result in me being deemed a soft iconoclast, and assigned a higher risk variable. Or say one of my close friends is very public about their dissent towards the US Government – I too would receive the trickle down negative association. Potential hypothetical future situations like going through a border check with a border guard having access to this information in some form could lead to all sorts of unpleasantries.

We live in profoundly troubling times in this regard – but who has the time or wherewithal to stop using the internet and all the conveniences that it brings to us? I for one would have to stop blogging. Not going to happen. All intelligent, thinking, and conscious individuals should be thinking about this. Over 90% of the world’s internet traffic goes through the US, so there’s little we can do to prevent our personal information from being captured.

On another level, look to China. The government there has the most sophisticated citizen monitoring system in the world. Real time biometric voice identification where words of dissent are muttered and gatherings of protestors can be rounded up in mere minutes. Of course none of this can fully be confirmed, well, because very little gets out.

Regarding trivial things like Google’s acquisition of Nest or the G+ debacle, give me a break. Nothing will stop the onslaught of the internet of things, consumers will embrace it wholeheartedly, more data than ever will be gleaned about us, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Contextualized data delivery will return the era of the personal to us, and we will live better, hopefully more connected lives as a result.

That is if, you can acquiesce and forget about the big bad boogey man. Just don’t think, do, speak, say, befriend, or associate with anything that could ever potentially be determined as the least be threatening or deviant to the establishment/state. Ever.

As you get older, you care less and less, eh? Now, onto new Android phones!

Joe Hindy

Perhaps this is a jaded point of view, but I gave up on keeping my personal data secure long, long ago. There are still some things I keep written down (most of my username and passwords are written down on good old paper) but when I put stuff on the internet, I give it $20, a suitcase, and kiss it goodbye because it’s not mine anymore and I’ve come to just accept that.

I think the big picture here is that Google can only grab your information if you choose to use Google. The problem is that Google is so good at what they do that they make it easy to send your data to them. I mean come on, contact lenses for diabetics, Google Glass, self driving cars, and all that other fun stuff? Who wouldn’t give up a short list of their browsing history just to get some of that?

Here’s the real problem in my mind’s eye. If you decided to sever all ties with Google today and started using other services (be it from Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo!, or any company with comparable services), Google will still have all of your information and the new company you choose to go with will too. Like Darcy said, one of these days the databases will be merged but until then, it’s worth knowing that every new service you sign up for is collecting your data for future use. It’s not just Google it’s everyone.

But try as I might to care, I simply don’t. The internet has all my information and that’s just the way that it is for me. I read the Terms of Service but I signed up anyway and, thus, it seems counter-intuitive to blame other companies for things I did to myself. I wanted their products. They said I could have them for free as long as I forked over personal data. Younger me was cool with that and while I wish I had shown a bit more discretion, this is a bed I made myself and I will lie in it with dignity. Am I happy that a billion people have access to pictures of me dressed in drag from 2006 when I lost a bet at a costume party? Not really, no, but if I didn’t want those pictures to go around, I probably shouldn’t have let them get taken and put on the internet eh? Sometimes people ought to take a little personal responsibility. Google didn’t have your data until you gave it to them, they didn’t steal it. It just would be nice to know what they plan on doing with it.

What do YOU think?

Join us in the comments and vote in our poll.

[poll id=”448″]

  • geel

    I don’t believe in privacy anymore. We sacrifice privacy for the sake of comfort.

    • apianist16

      And freedom for security.

    • Balraj

      Not comfort, but for getting things for free

  • Abdel Aziz Farhi

    Thanx to things like the NSA the only time someone enjoys his privacy is when he’s asleep.

    • Jayfeather787

      What? The NSA watches you while you sleep. Hahaha, sweet dreams! :)

      • Kevin Kuo

        They see you when you’re sleeping…
        They know when you’re awake…

        • Jayfeather787

          NSA is Santa Clause but without the beard.

    • On a Clear Day

      The NSA is not as frightening frankly as a malevolent hacker and/or criminal organization that might target one for ill gotten gain or other untoward purposes, or worst of all a rogue nation like China – which beyond a shadow of a shade of a doubt will – not may – will imprison and/or eliminate with no compunction anyone whom it deems a threat to its totalitarian divine rights.

      Google is actually a pure as the driven snow company – if you stop and think about it – it is driven by the force that has enabled most of the changes for good in this world over the centuries (albeit with no shortages of tangential negative effects that later had to be addressed and corrected over time by enlightened individuals) namely, capitalism and the desire to make money by building value based on providing a service commensurate with the price one asks for said service – and become rich doing it.

      Unfortunately, we have today a politically correct – take from the thrifty give to the shifty – collection of left wing radicals leading America as well as most of the free world, who haven’t a clue about what actually creates value in a free market economy and who are more interested in throwing a wrench into the engine of capitalism so that by the time he is done “all the kings horses and all the kings men” won’t be able to put it back together again.

      Google and its success irritates the social re-engineering jihadists of America and Europe because it stands in stark relief to the utter bankruptcy of and downward spiral to ruin that is – embodied within and cannot be separated from – their approach to commerce and society, thank you Karl Marx.

      Google is successful because people are willing to pay the price Google charges for the services it offers – being served up ads, which usually tend to be about things that are pertinent to us – horrors!

      So it is not surprising to that the naysayers and conspiracy theorists – like the guy who wrote the article on Fox News about “Why Google Really is Evil” – are gnashing their teeth while denouncing in terms most dire the evil of Google, when they see that – rightfully so – most of us realize that their paranoia doesn’t make no never mind in the grand scheme of things.

  • There is a limit before I say it’s not worth sharing specific info. I have used Gmail since 2008 and that’s a lot of info, and haven’t had any issues. I feel better with that than Facebook.

  • Shark Bait

    No, I don’t believe any person at google is actually looking at my things. Algorithms searching your words are very different and I don’t think it invades privacy

    • Balraj

      Its not Google, but any server can me hacked by a govt
      It’s like kinda sucks
      Anyways ppl who need free stuff have little choice these days ;-)

      • Bouncer

        Nothing is ever Free…you are always paying even if you don’t know it.

        • Balraj

          That’s what I meant
          You pay privacy in return for something free

  • Jayfeather787

    I don’t care. I mean I don’t really like if a company takes my info, but I can’t stop that, and there is no way to. Aside from that, google is probably the one company I trust my data with, so I am ok.

    • AA :P

      well, google does seem better than many others but relying so much on one company, we are setting up a failure point too strong

  • Mike Reid

    Want privacy ?

    Stay off the grid, off the Internet, in a hidden cabin in the woods. Or some similar hidey hole in the world. We all make our choices in life, and it’s good when we have choice.

    If you choose to live in the modern world, privacy is pretty much gone.

    And we can’t stuff the Internet genie back in a bottle, at least not without suffering a dark age that could be brought on by nuclear, biological, astronomic or other world scale catastrophe.

    • AA :P

      perhaps there’s a way out. lavabit was not a fantasy thing. secure email, secure cloud was real, until nsa chose to gut them. its our data. we need not necessarily share it with others. to a certain extent yes. otherwise, we could chose to remain in closed secure loops. pay for things, and not rely on free networks that work on ads. and the expense wouldnt be too much too.

  • Balraj

    I have said this before
    Google wants to be the internet….
    Which will never happen…
    I don’t use Google why F should my email be linked to it
    Google is getting better than Apple day by day
    F U

    • AA :P

      facebook too wants to be the internet, but they started late. microsoft / apple does not want to be the internet, but they already have way too much access on our desktops, given how they inserted nsa backdoors. well, we have no info on apple, but im pretty sure nsa would have some deal. all US corps, all of this nsa stuff in them

  • AA :P

    “We don’t classify this as a lack or invasion of privacy, mainly because we receive something valuable in exchange”
    none of them collate, nor remember information to a degree google does. nor is it as easily accessible for a government or a hacker so easily.

    richard stallman is the man to follow regarding your dystopian future references, corporations will turn their back on feel good statements, the day their profit is on the line.

    we have monolithic organizations instead a lot of small companies, and our choices are shrinking all the time. that’s disturbing.

  • Tran Nguyen

    I don’t worry much about my privacy because I gave it up when first time I started to use computers. Or maybe my first time applied credit card. Oh! Wait minutes. If I am not wrong I had filled too many of the employment applications for looking for a job.

  • Tran Nguyen

    Google is like as your secretary who need to know everything about you for your convenience and quickly to solve your problems. She knows you better than your wife even yourself.

  • MasterMuffin

    “I read the Terms of Service” people actually read those? Anyways the only way to have real privacy is to move to Antarctic, live somewhere there in an igloo without internet connection and never leave outside!

    • Jayfeather787

      Hey why the NSA hate igloos?
      Because they are snow dens! So you should definitely be safe in there.
      Terrible joke :)

      • MasterMuffin


  • yes

    I dont listen to ppl who do not know that Internet should be written with capital letter ?

  • phuongot

    Unlimited article, many thanks

  • Luka Mlinar

    I don’t really care about what data Google has. They have open documents stating how they don’t plan to use it here or there. I have a problem with the NSA intercaptin all the data going trough the US, so virtually everything. Un like Google there are no open documents stating their intention with these stolen information.

  • bob

    wtf? what kind of journalism is this?

    google sells peoples privacy for a living. get real, thats all they do.

    its beyond my comprehension how can someone buy a product whose sole purpose is to pump up share numbers to sell ads

    we aint googles costumers. other huge companies are. for me, thats insanely disturbing business model.

    im buying only from companies that make money solely on hardware.

    • John Doe

      And you are getting your software from where?? email/social networks ….
      Bob you are an idiot if you think that Google and the other internet companies do not already know enough about you!!
      IRS, Gov, NSA, Medical fields, Utility Comp, Post Office, Schools/Univ …etc
      Buddy, unless you live off the grid, you are on the grid and by now are known to everybody!! Get over it ..
      And if you own a phone, then you are being tracked by 911 even if you don’t like it!!

      • bob

        google is making money selling my privacy and i wouldnt want 911 to not know my address. get real man

        i cannot respect a company that sells my privacy for money to other companies for better advertising, sorry

        • John Doe

          ‘Get real man’ .. really?? (that is soooo lame..)

          Dude, 911 (and the NSA) know where you are all the time (if they need too..)

          There is no getting away from that ..

          Obviously you did not read the small print when you signed up for a Google account, or when you

          installed Chrome, or any of the other apps that they give you for FREE!!

          If you do not want Google to get a hold of your information then sign up with Yahoo or some other

          internet provider, but I can almost guarantee they they are doing the exact same thing ..

          Suggestion is to get off of the internet and go hid in some closed off part of the planet, tho I

          would suspect that it is a little too late for that, as they already know too much about you!!

          And it is not just Google, it’s everything else that you touch with your digital figure print, no matter

          if you know it, or if you have given it on purpose or not, they all sell information.

          Every time you purchase something with Visa/MC/AMEX or debit, it is traced back to the store

          and can be used to focus in on what buyers are purchasing based on any criteria they can garner.

          Google is not the only company selling information!! so stop just picking on them!

          • Bob

            Apple sells hardware, microsoft sells software, amazon sells content. What does google sell? People privacy

          • Keg Man

            perhaps you need to learn how they “sell your privacy” because they only sell your privacy in the extreme liberal sense of the definition. your information isn’t actually sold

  • districtjack

    As Darcy LaCouvee said, “For all intents and purposes, privacy is dead”. This is true when it comes to the internet. If I have a data storage device that is not hooked up to the Internet I would consider that to be private. But that scenario does not happen. Everything we own is connected to the Internet.
    Now take for instance Google Drive and Gmail. I think that my data is stored in Google servers in an encrypted way. No one can access that data except for me … and Google. I know if Google scans all of my private data for keywords to put together an advertising profile for tomorrow, that may be construed as a violation of privacy, but it’s just an algorithm. Its not a couple of people sitting at a desk reading my emails or looking through all of my private documents and records and bills, it’s just an algorithm looking for keywords. So in that scenario it’s perfectly acceptable and not really a gross violation of my privacy, in exchange for a free servivce. But in the future, who is going to be able to access that data?
    Let’s take for instance a private investigator in today’s world who has friends in the Department of Motor Vehicles or friends on the police force, and while investigating they can pay their friends to get information for them on the subject involved in their investigation. That’s an illegal violation and it does happen.
    Now who’s to say in the future that several people working at Google may fall into this category. Imagine a Google employee whose approached by a private investigator or criminal and given cash 2 download a copy of all of your private data. That would be a huge violation of privacy. I’ve accepted that there are no controls that can be completely enforced to guarantee my privacy.
    With that in mind I will not upload anything that is controversial or potentially implicating me in some kind of criminal activity or even political activity, or my passwords and alarm code. Information that only you should know should be kept in your head or on paper (like your alarm code, bank PIN, or the location of your buried gold coins). So the bottom line is if you have nothing to hide, you don’t really have to be concerned about privacy. However if you’re a drug dealer, theif, murderer or a sexual offender, youre probably very concerned with privacy. If that’s the case, stop breaking the law or turn yourself in because GOOGLE is watching your every move.

    So yes, privacy is dead. The only sure form of privacy is the thoughts in your head, or whispered conversations in dark corners.

  • Mike

    Several years before the NSA activities were so well documented, Eric Schmidt was interviewed ( I wanna say 2009-ish) about privacy concerns. His rather flippant response was “If you don’t want people knowing what websites you visit, perhaps you shouldn’t be going there”. It was rather striking disdain for customer privacy concerns from the leader of the Do Know Evil Empire. Fast forward to post-NSA disclosures and see Eric Schmidt express “outrage” about Googles lack of privacy from NSA snooping activities. What an absolute two faced Jack Ass.

  • matthewgale_6

    The day we join the information super highway that is the internet, is the day we give up our right to absolute privacy