Reading Google's privacy fine print

Google may have shed its goody-two-shoes with the sweeping changes to its privacy policies but it's really business as usual for the search engine giant.

Google announced in a blog post last week that it will start tracking us across all its services - Gmail, Search, YouTube, etc. - and that it will share data on our activity across all of them.

They dressed up the news in a typically cutesy video:

Google says it's condensing its 60 privacy settings into one easier-to-understand and more transparent document, which will subsequently pave the way for the company to merge its products into a more integrated and intuitive user platform.

In other words, as Mashable's Kate Freeman puts it, Google "needed to give itself permission to sync your products in the future."

Google already integrates a bunch of its products. Its recently launched personal search feature, for example, is now ferreting out answers not only from the web, but from our personal grab bags. If you search for restaurants in Munich, returns might include Google posts or photos from your albums or from those shared by others with you.

Googling restaurants

Google's envisioning much more. Try not to fall off your chair when I tell you it's going to translate into more targeted ads.

An example: It's January. You're a couch potato. You do not care about fitness ads, so you will no longer receive fitness ads. But you might get a reminder that you’re going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day.

As Google says:

People still have to do way too much heavy lifting, and we want to do a better job of helping them out.

The changes are scheduled to take effect on March 1, and they've got some citizens of cyberland screaming like it's a coming apocalypse and ushers in the end to the goody-two-shoes Google motto: "Don't be evil."

An example: Gizmodo's headline reads "Google's Broken Promise: The End of 'Don’t Be Evil'."

Gizmodo's Mat Honan explains thusly why they're interpreting this move as proof that Google's sporting a 666 somewhere on its scalp:

Google changed the rules that it defined itself. Google built its reputation, and its multi-billion dollar business, on the promise of its "don't be evil" philosophy. That's been largely interpreted as meaning that Google will always put its users first, an interpretation that Google has cultivated and encouraged.

Granted, Mr. Honan has a point: users can't opt out of this. If putting users first is requisite for not being evil, then yes, I would agree with Gizmodo. I guess we can say Google is tiptoeing toward Hell. But it's not the first time Google has been devilish. And it won't be the last.

Let's not forget, the multi-billion dollar business Google has built was done under the rules of capitalism.

In this market structure, ethics aren't encouraged in public corporations, and are downright illegal if they conflict with profits.

Anybody who's seen the documentary "The Corporation," will realise how foolish it is to expect a corporation to have any kind of loyalty to not doing evil.

Anybody who swallowed the "Don't be evil" motto likely also believes that Apple slogan, the grammatically incorrect "Think Different" ad campaign that touted independent thinking, coming out of a company that's as grimly profit-motivated as its supposedly buttoned-up PC opposite.

Anyway, did we really think Google was purely interested in its customers' well-being, even after the company was fined $500 million for allowing Canadian pharmacies to use its Adwords system to market pharmaceuticals to American consumers?

Google's using our information. It's been doing it quite a while. It makes money from advertising. It's good at building new ways to do that.

Evil? Or business as usual?

Lisa Vaas is a technology writer for Sophos, see her profile and other articles here

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