Google is not free. Google is not your friend. Google is growing with a Microsoft-like contempt for their customers. Bold statement? Let me explain.
Do we pay for their GMail, Office, Blogger, YouTube, MySpace services? In financial terms we do not. They are free to access and use. They simply charge in a different currency......information. In an IT (Information Technology) world, using technology to gather information is a very pure model.
With EVERY transaction there is a trade off; money for product, hours worked for wages, ideas suggestion for contribution tag etc. The key here is that the trade off is upfront, understood and agreed to from all parties involved. This is where Google fall way short of the mark in in my opinion.
Just like Microsoft, they want us to use their integrated services for as much of our PC needs as possible. Let's compare the "good guys" and the "bad guys" shall we? They don't overlap exactly, and many services they offer I've missed out here.
- Email - Hotmail
- Email Client - Outlook Express
- Web Browser - Internet Explorer
- PM - MSN Messenger
- Search Engine - MSN
- Browser / ISP - MSN
- Media Player - Windows Media Player
- Office Suite - Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint
- Operating System - Windows
- Servers - IIS
- Programming - VisualBasic, .NET, ASP
- Email - Googlemail
- PM - GoogleTalk
- Search Engine - Google
- Blogging - Blogger / Blogspot
- Photo Sharing - Flickr
- Video Sharing - YouTube
- Social Networking - MySpace
- Advertising - Adsense
- Tracking - Analytics & DoubleClick
- Browser Shortcuts - Google Toolbar
In Microsoft's case they charge for the software, and everything you create will be done in their own file formats, meaning that if you decide one day to switch to Linux or Apple, most of your data will give you problems. It's there....you just can't open it easily. They also have an obsession with thinking they have a right to know exactly what is on your PC, as well as what you can and can't do with it.
In Google's case they don't charge for their services, place adverts on your screen at every turn and gather information from EVERY one of their services and collate it together. This information pool about each PC / user is held by Google, and is subject to what Google decide. They have already sold out to the Chinese government on dissident bloggers and censoring the search engine results as a "price worth paying to get into the Chinese market". So far they have refused US DOJ demands for search engine queries.
What happens if the US (or any other country) administration pass a law that states companies like Google MUST cooperate with the FBI covertly (behind the users back) on issues the FBI state are of a delicate security matter, without providing proof of suspicion or a court issued warrant? That if they do not, they will not be allowed to operate in that country.
The FBI are constantly trying to track down and bring to justice people who commit serious crimes online and offline. The online records are often vital in proving innocence or guilt. The same goes for PC forensics. So, if the FBi are have an agent in a chat room known to be run by pedophiles undercover pretending to be one and gathering evidence, co-operation from ISP's and companies like Google is a worthy aim. The FBI agent gets the user name, logs of the chats including soliciting services and an IP address. They need help from that ISP to match up the IP address at that time to an account holder. If the PC has been wiped before a raid, the online pool of gathered info from a company like Google can supply more than enough to convict.
All good then? Yes and no. FBI contact both an ISP and Google with:
"We are investigating an individual in a serious case, and need all the information related to this IP address."
"What type of investigation?"
"What are they suspected of?"
"So you want all this information, but won't explain why?"
"Are you trying to obstruct an officer in the line of their duties?"
In the pedophile example above this is a positive thing, but we all know how the Bush administration handles dissent.....they go out of their way to destroy the dissenter. No holds barred. People are investigated and put on no-fly lists, they are followed, tax audits etc. They REALLY don't like people disagreeing with them. For this to work, we have to trust in the authority investigating that it's a genuine investigation and not a witch-hunt.
With that framework, lets look at the Google trade-off in more detail. ALL services go through Google's servers, with logs and cached copies saved etc. They KNOW all about storing data, it's their primary business. ALL of this information is collated together to provide a much more detailed picture. Even with multiple accounts, the IP address and MAC address are logged, so it's a snapshot profile of the users of that PC as well as each user.
So, let's look at specifics shall we? First off, EVERY interaction with any server notes your IP address (your PC's address) in the logs, many list the MAC address (your modem's fingerprint) too. This allows the administrators to co-operate with the authorities in proving that an individual PC made that connection. This is pretty standard stuff, and is a default response option for hacking attempts or posting of illegal stuff like child porn. It helps prove the truth and punish the guilty. It can be abused.
A standard way for companies to help improve the user experience (like not having to log in each time) is to put a cookie on the users system. These cookies are read and updated each time the user visits the site. In many cases there is no need for cookies other than to track stats. In Google's case they tie in information from soooooooo many disparate services, that the implications are scary.
If I use a GMail account they have the contents of EVERY email in and out of that account, which includes links, files, personal details etc. If I use that to send my CV to a potential employer, they have a cached copy of my CV, with my real world name, address, phone numbers, past history (as worded in the CV) and my references contact details. If I talk about anything embarasing or illegal in emails they have that too, as well as who I have emailed, and who have emailed me. This includes all opt-ins to web services, password confirmations etc.
If I use GoogleTalk as a PM service, they have logs of EVERY conversation I have, along with everyone on my buddy list, every link I've sent, been sent, or clicked on is noted. Any personal conversations I've had are also noted. Let's face it; the PM idea (from whatever network) is aimed at a relaxed real time conversation where casual talk is the norm.
If I use the Google search engine, EVERY search I make is noted, along with the words I use and links I click from these results.
If I use Flickr or YouTube it has a note of every picture or video I post or look at, as well as the details of the users who posted them. It also has a note of where I link them to.
If I use AdSense I need to provide my full postal address and bank account info for payment and tax purposes. Each site I have my AdSense code on as well as the clicks from it are tracked and noted.
If I use the Office services like the word processor or spreadsheet EVERY draft will be cached. Every letter I write to "David Smith, 20 Main Street, Glasgow" (bullshit name and address btw) is noted. If I include phone numbers, fax numbers or any confidential details they are cached too. If I run a small business and use these services, it's like having your filing cabinet with all your confidential company and customer details on GOOGLE's servers, administered by GOOGLE, and subject to the whims or decisions by a corporate company, who's only motive is to make money.
If I use MySpace they have a note of all my profile stuff, including messages and contacts. It has a note of who's pages I appear as a friend on.
If I use Blogger or Blogspot all my blog entries and comments are noted, INCLUDING the private ones. My blogroll is also noted, along with where I appear on other bloggers blogrolls.
If I use the Google Toolbar (which is coming as a default option in non-Google like Adobe Flash Player products now), anything I search for in that box is noted. The primary useful feature for many is the Page Rank, but for that to work you have to accept even more invasive tracking of your clicks.
To add insult to injury, Google went and bought DoubleClick. Their business seems to be tracking clicks for advertising profiling. This seems like a similar service to Google's own Analytics so the idea seems to be "combine the biggest two and offer little wriggle room under the radar to avoid being tracked."
When I used Windows, I noticed that DoubleClick was one of the companies which was rather aggressive at tracking users, mostly without their consent. Most anti-spyware programs class it as "spyware". There are worse offenders, in DoubleClick's case it's tracking cookies, others install toolbars etc.
So, is Google really your friend? That depends on whether you consider someone sitting on your shoulder watching and recording everything you do as a friend. Personally I consider that too invasive into my privacy. The question now is "what am I going to do about it?"
I use several Google services like GMail and this blog on Blogspot. The Google search engine is by far the best. I've decided to take a stand and cut down the Google services to a bare minimum. This essentially means the search engine, with no cookies, and the Customize Google extension for Firefox to anonymise data. I'm stopping using my GMail, Blogger etc accounts.
What do I hope to achieve? I aim to make people think about what price they pay for Google. My own stance will not affect Google in the slightest, it will only start to be noticed if 10,000's of others start to back off from their services.
Am I worried about Google being hacked and my data stolen? They are experienced sysadmins running on a Linux server farm, the chances of being hacked are VERY slim. It's my data being used legally to keep authorities happy to in turn keep the money rolling in that worries me.
Is Google evil? Of course not, they have a business model which works with a different currency. They do support open source projects, they use Linux as their back end providers. I see them as a Microsoft in the making. Both are hell bent on building a monopoly where all roads lead to their company. Microsoft are just much further along that path.
It's good business to know more about your customers so you can serve them better, but privacy needs to be respected. The EU (European Union) have been alarmed at how much personal identifiable data Google retains about us. They are considering changing the laws to protect users in the EU. The US is the same. It seems that many jurisdictions are concerned at Google's data retention issues, and are forcing Google to volunteer compromises to avoid harsher solutions being forced on them. To me, this is NOT the sign of a trustworthy "friend".