Questions regarding web giant Google and precisely how far they pry into each and every interaction you have on the internet never seem to go away. This was brought to light yet again last week, as the company decided to settle on a three year old privacy suit.
Google has tentatively agreed to pay $8.5 million to settle a three-year-old class action lawsuit that claimed the Internet search company violated users’ privacy by leaking their search queries – which may include names or other identifying information – to operators of websites that the users may visit.
Under the proposed settlement, the $8.5 million will go into a fund that – after subtracting the plaintiffs’ attorney fees – would be divided among seven nonprofit groups that promise to use the money on public education campaigns about technology and privacy. The groups include the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, the World Privacy Forum, the MacArthur Foundation and AARP.
As the article goes on to note, this case sounds like yet another settlement which will go to benefit essentially nobody except for the lawyers involved and some largely untraceable nonprofits who all have staff to pay. But it does serve to highlight yet again exactly how pervasive Google is in the online lives of everyone. I have two brief bits of anecdotal evidence to offer here which recently came up and tie into some of the concerns people have.
I was recently working with a colleague who was using the services of a company which involved fairly large numbers of 55 gallon drums of raw materials. They had to entirely cut off the lids of the drums to empty the mostly solid material, and used an electric “de-header” which essentially resembles a giant cat food can opener. Sometimes the “chime” (or lip) of the barrels gets bent or damaged in transit and needs to be straightened out. It turns out that a company called Wizard produces a special tool which does nothing but straighten out barrel chimes, called a drum chime dekinker.
For whatever reason, I found that kind of amusing and Googled up the tool. ( I was rather shocked to see that it cost more than 200 bucks.) At lunch, I opened up CNN’s home page to check the headlines, as I usually do. On the right hand side of the page (before they recently changed their format) there were some advertisements. Can you guess what the first ad at the top was? Yep… an advertisement for a Wizard Drum Chime Dekinker. The odds of that are too staggering to even contemplate, so it was obvious how it got there.
In a similar episode, as fishing season approached this year, my brother sent me an e-mail where he mentioned a relatively new sporting goods company in Washington State who sell some bass lures which he had tried and suggested to me. That same day, the Google ads on my G-mail home page had an advertisement for that company’s fishing lures. Again, this is beyond the limits of the universe of random chance.
So Google is tracking a lot more than just a list of contacts you have, as we’ve long known. They are storing the information on not only who you are talking to, but the content of your conversations. (Please note, I’m not implying there are real, living people reading each of your e-mails. It’s software which scans and stores the content searching for keywords.) I had long since given up worrying about such things, pretty much surrendering my privacy concerns to Google in exchange for the extremely useful and pervasive tools they offer for free. But in the era of the NSA tapping such providers on the shoulder, it certainly gives one pause.