Like most of you, I use Google a lot. I use it to find papers related to my research, I use it for e-mail and I use it to find that song that is stuck in my head. Last week while trying to think of a topic for this column, I decided to be meta and google Google. The first hit was an article about Google illegally capturing and saving private information on British citizens — such as e-mails, passwords and webpage caches — while collecting images for Street View. Street View, which was launched by Google in May 2007, provides images for streets and was intended to act as a sort of virtual tour guide by personalizing maps. The recent revelation that Street View vans were collecting information in addition to public street images has provoked an outcry among privacy advocates. Disturbingly, the breach may involve several other countries, including the United States.
Of course, there have been complaints about both Street View, and Google more broadly, before. While the photos collected and processed by Street View are supposed to be used for panoramic images, they often include individuals. In theory, these images are blurred out, and users can submit a form requesting removal of a personal image or effect (such as a car or even a home), but Street View has upset enough people that some countries, like the Czech Republic, have banned it altogether.
Setting Street View aside, Google has received bad press on privacy issues before by saving cookies on users’ computers for long periods of time and targeting ads based on keywords in e-mails.
Google has tried to address some of these issues. For example, it now operates many services — including Gmail and Youtube — that could potentially make private information public. Google Dashboard — a single-page compilation of all your Google-related account information — is supposed to prevent this problem by allowing users to go through past searches and accounts to see what information is truly private and what information is not. Google’s cookies also now expire in two years as opposed to two or three decades. However, Google still seems better at apologizing for infractions than at taking concrete steps to prevent private data from being exposed at all. One widespread complaint about Google, Facebook and other similar companies is that their privacy policies are way too long. Few of us have the time to thoroughly read and understand what things are or are not shared by these companies. Google released a more concise version of its privacy policies at the beginning of this month, but the most helpful thing they could do is make their products opt-in as opposed to opt-out. It is frustrating to find my contact information is available on some new application without my consent.
From time to time — but particularly after reading articles such as these — I have thought about abandoning Google. Back in the day, I was not so dependent on it. I remember using several different search engines like Yahoo, Altavista and Ask Jeeves in middle school and high school to write papers. A few months ago, my dad sent me an e-mail exhorting me to try some search engine that donates part of its profits to charity. I tried it for a few searches and then retreated to Google. The same thing happened when I tried Bing. I can’t completely explain it — to me, there is nothing obviously inferior about any of these other search engines (I’ll leave the Bing vs. Google debates to other, saavier searchers). But there is something familiar about Google and I confess to enjoying the way they decorate their main banner logo for holidays or commemorations. So I guess I’ll continue to use Google, but I promise I feel a bit guilty about it.
Saheli Sadanand is a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Immunobiology.