Monday, September 13, 2010

Don't eat Eric Schmidt's ice cream

Google was called to task recently by for privacy statements of CEO Eric Schmidt. It took the form of a 15 second video played on the jumbotron in Times square. You can see it here. But that wasn't enough, they put up a longer version with a voice track on their website and on Youtube here.

The shorter video has the creepier appearance, relying on "Schmidt's" facial expression to convey the wickedness of Google's data gathering, but the longer version gives examples of what Google might know about you. Unfortunately, they chose two examples that fall right in line with the paraphrased Eric Schmidt quote they use, "If there's anything you don't want anyone to know, you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." There are plenty of things that you might not want people to know, but that are completely legitimate. I guess they don't have enough of a 'creepy factor' for an ad like this, though. Google's response to the videos was very sedate, or at least I didn't see loud objections or denials. They made changes to clarify their privacy policy and even, after initial refusal, allowed to purchase advertising on Google for the purpose of criticizing Google.

Google, possibly more than any other company - even Facebook - knows us better than we know ourselves. They talk about stored data being anonymized, but for it to be useful in the ways Google uses it there has to be a way to connect it to us. That's how personalized searches, search term suggestions and the other little perks we take for granted now that didn't exist just a few years ago work. If Google can connect it to us, it's possible that someone else might obtain it and make the same connection.

So is Eric Schmidt one of several 'dark lords' of internet data gathering? Or is he a messiah, using the personal data we gift him with to improve our internet experience and grant us greater and more personal online lives? Or is he a well meaning businessman who really doesn't understand the implications of what he is doing? I doubt that any of those are completely true. But it is true that Google's business could not exist as it does if it didn't have access to as much information as it can gather from us. So I imagine that there is a little of the sinner and the saint in Mr. Schmidt's motives, and perhaps a little of the naive visionary as well. But regardless of his motivations, it's our job to make sure that Google and companies like it only gather information we want gathered. To do that we have to know what information they are gathering, why, and what is being done with it, and they should be willing to tell us.