Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

Summary: A lot has been made of Google's new privacy policy and terms of use. I say bring it on.


There are very few aspects of my life that don't somehow involve Google. My phone runs on Android, my favorite tablet just got an OTA update to Ice Cream Sandwich (!!!), I use Chrome across all of my computers, I develop AdWords campaigns, I use Analytics to develop metrics for the day job and dive into SEO, I handle many of the CBS Interactive Google webcasts, I use Google Docs almost exclusively for productivity, and my wife doesn't know where I am half the time until she checks my Google Calendar (which, in fact, aggregate two other Google Calendars).

I'm increasingly turning to Google+ as my source of relevant information and opinions, a function previously reserved for Twitter, and I've even dispensed with bookmarks, instead using Google Sites to organize important pages and resources.

I live, eat, breathe, work, and play Google and there aren't many people more aware of Google's business model and the amount of data it collects than I. So is it just sheer stupidity and naiveté that has me utterly embracing the Google ecosystem and relatively unconcerned about newly announced privacy policies that have caused so much consternation this week? Before you jump down to the talkbacks to tell me how stupid I really am, read on for another couple paragraphs.

As Larry Dignan pointed out in his post about the new policies last night,

Google noted that it already has all that data, but it’s now integrating that information across products. It’s a change in how Google will use the data not what it collects. In other words, Google already knows more about you than your wife.

From my perspective, though, I can live with Google knowing a lot about me. It knows, for example, that I've recently developed an obsession with the electric guitar and have been researching inexpensive models that I might just be able to justify as a birthday present to myself. It doesn't judge, it just shows me the best deals in display ads on the three models of guitar and 2 models of amps I've been reading about the most. My wife isn't aware of this obsession and her take on it would be judgmental (God love her!): "When will you have time to play guitar? And we're supposed to be saving money! And what's wrong with your acoustic guitar?"

Taking this a step further, as Google's new privacy policies and terms of use do, I should expect to start seeing guitar-related apps in my suggestions in the Google Market and the Chrome Marketplace. Guitarists on Google+ should start appearing in suggested people to add to my circles and Google Reader should offer to download Guitar Player Magazine feeds for me. And, more likely than not, I'll start seeing more guitar-related ads as well.

Google's goal, of course, is to sell advertising. That's about 97% of their revenue. By pulling people like me into their increasingly unified ecosystem, they can demonstrate very high click-through rates to potential advertisers and charge a premium to reach highly targeted and yet incredibly vast audiences.

Next: But they need to give me something in return »

They need to give me something in return

For me to buy into this, they need to give me something in return. Something to make all things Google really sticky. Like a wide array of free tools from Google Docs to Google Music to Google Voice. And cheap tools that I buy for my business like Google Apps and AdWords. Their new policies are designed to be more transparent, but also to pave the way for these tools to talk to each other better, making them even stickier through a unified experience and more relevant services.

Back to the wife comparison that Larry brought up. My wife knows that every Friday night is pizza night in our house. So does Google, since every Friday around 4:30 I pull out my Android and use Google Voice Search to find the number of whatever pizza joint we decide to patronize that week. Fine. Google, however, can actually do something more useful with that information than my wife can ("Where should I order pizza, sweetheart?" "Wherever, just not that place down the road. Or that other place. And make sure they're having a deal!").

Come Friday morning, the ads I see on Gmail or Google search should start being pretty pizza-heavy: Dominos, Papa Johns, and a place or two that has an active Google Offer. As I'm driving home that evening, the GPS on my phone should set off an alert when I drive past a well-reviewed pizza place (assuming I've set location-based preferences to alert me to destinations with at least four-star average reviews). And the minute I type a P in my mobile browser, Google Instant should leap into action and display nearby pizza places and a news story about a new place to get pizza in the next town.

We're not quite there yet, but this is the sort of integration and experience that Google is covering in its new policies and terms of use. I know that my privacy red flags should probably be going off. Google has gigabytes of information about me and is using that information to help its advertisers sell products. That's bad, right?

Guess what, folks? This is the semantic web

And yet, I don't think it is. Many of the same techies who cry foul over these new policies have also been pushing for the development of the semantic web to make it easier to find what we actually need in the trillions of web pages floating around the Internet. Guess what, folks? This is the semantic web. When our search engines know what we actually mean, when data on the web automagically becomes information we can use easily and quickly, we've arrived.

And the semantic web can't exist without "the web" (whatever that is) knowing a lot about us. It takes data for a computer to understand our needs and process natural language efficiently. Some of those data will necessarily be fairly personal.

Now, if I start getting spam from pizza places or calls on my Google Voice number from Dominos because Google has sold my contact information and preferences to advertisers, we have a problem and I'll be waving my privacy flag as high as anyone else. However, when I opt in by opening a Google account and staying logged in as I surf the web, I'm not only consenting to the collection and aggregation of data about me, I'm asking that it be done so that the web and related tools can be more useful to me. This sort of data mining lets me work faster, play easier, and find the best pizza in a 20-mile radius.

For its part, Google needs to remain the trusted broker of these data. No, I don't like the idea that our government could brand me a terrorist and seize these gigabytes of data under the Patriot Act. The alternative, though, is an ever-growing morass of web sites and tools that I get to dig through manually.

And, by the way, even if I'm not logged in to my Google account as I'm doing it, my ISP knows the sites I've visited, too, and could just as easily (if not more so) be compelled to turn over this information to the real Big Brother in all of this.

Far more trust in Google than the Feds

Honestly, I have far more trust in Google than I do in the Feds. Google is motivated by money: they need my trust to keep collecting those data to keep making it easier for me to buy things from Google's paying advertisers. If that trust is broken by inappropriate sharing of data, then my eyeballs go elsewhere and so do the advertisers who target me via AdWords and AdSense. Our government has no such financial motivation. Money talks.

The fact that the speech recognition on my phone kicks ass because I use Google Voice all the time and it's learned how I talk might be a little creepy, but it's far more important that I can do a Google search or send a text while I'm driving without taking my eyes off the road.

Welcome to 2012, folks. The semantic web has arrived. Use it well and let's keep Google's new policies in perspective. And Google? Don't be evil. I have a lot of colleagues who will be pointing, laughing, and saying I told you so if you ever are.

Topics: Laptops, Android, Google, Hardware, Legal, Mobility, Security, Tablets

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • test

    Dietrich T. Schmitz *Your
    • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz * Your Linux Advocate - Working :)
      • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

        @mrdatahs even people learn how you talk. why should people even be scared with google doing the same thing?
        other *
  • We rely on Google much more than is commonly understood...

    I see it being applied to all manner of different situations.

    Of course, you say, that's obvious. But what isn't obvious is what or how Google is changing the wiring of our minds. How much information do we collect in our heads that needn't be if we simply forgo memorizing and get immediate feedback from a search engine?

    That we have slowly become dependent on Google or other search engines to apply them in our daily lives at work, socially, what have you is both wonderful and troubling.

    Is our need for information driving use of Google? Or are we making an overt choice to use it in favor of some other medium or information source, by virtue of its convenience, e.g., do I pull that reference manual out and look it up, or, shall I just 'google it'. Or did I forget what I committed to memory or needed to when Google wasn't around.

    What will happen to all of these reference materials as we form new habits and transition to Googling everything under the Sun?

    Thanks Chris.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz *Your
    • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz * Your Linux Advocate
      A very valid point. Although I still remember most phone numbers that I call on a frequent basis, I don't bother to learn new ones because the phone does that for me. This is a simple example of what Google is doing on a massive scale. Like everything, there are pros and cons. I just hope the cons don't get too invasive!
  • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

    Good post.
  • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

    I guess you'll know if it's evil or not the day you start doing a lot of searches on "heart disease" or "children cancer" and your insurance company stops insuring you. Though I kind of trust Google now, it's the future that's a bit grey here. Corporations need to make money and grow, so who knows what they're going to need to do to grow in the future.
  • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

    I remember the good ole days when everyone got the same search results.

    Those were good days.
  • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

    How about if you discuss investing in real estate with a friend, and the next day you start getting all these bogus stories in your news searches about experts predicting a 66% increase in Las Vegas real estate over the next 6 months-but you have no way of knowing if these are real stories or just push ads by dubious advertisers?

    How can anyone possibly support this optionless stealing of your private information. Its despicable. Would you approve of the post office delivering all of your mail opened?
    • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)


      Almost a good point... but if you are discussing buying real estate with a friend you are likely researching the subject if you are serious about it and you will need to learn to tell the difference between legitimate real estate news and dubious advertisement on your own.

      Besides, its pretty easy right now to tell the difference between a push ad on Google and a real search result and no bogus news stories coming up in your news searches might be a good thing. However, I am very much in favor of a simple and quick option to be able to differentiate between customized search results and raw search results. That said, even raw search results report dubious information so its always the responsibility of the researcher to apply proper due diligence.

      Great article Christopher. One of the best I've read on ZDnet.
  • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

    Chris, the problem with the typical consumer is that they are uneducated and they don't care! They pretty much buy what they want to buy what they see on TV and never bother to investigate why they are buying that one!

    The Google system is clearly better, more integrated and less of an over all pain than either Apple or Microsofts systems but it needs to market to show this to these same people!

    Think about it, Apple shows Siri and the flaky software goes Viral, there are several apps on Android that did the samething and some are better but the common user had no idea about this! Crud, they average iPhone user didn't even know that Android has had Dictation for years and because of their walled garden they didn't realize what they were missing!

    Bottom line, better has to be put on display or you will lose sales to an inferior product!
  • Using data to personalize.. and discriminate!?

    I, like you Chris, love Google & integrate it into my life (I do have an iPhone however, don't tell Google that!).

    Google and Facebook collect a butt load of information on a second by second basis.. and I can't help but to think: "What are doing.. or what are they GOING to be doing with that data?!"

    You put up some good examples of how they can use that data in the very near future.. this guy orders pizza every Friday, if I'm Google, I want to serve the pizza shops who have the highest bids to you on Fridays.. right?

    My question is: COULD they use this data to discriminate?

    This isn't the best example, but think about this:

    I go to Best Buy and get a GoPro camera. A week later, I return the camera. Best Buy has my credit card (or name, or rewards zone card, or whatever..) linked to my Facebook account. THEN, a week later, I post a video of me skiing.. a video captured with none other than the GoPro camera that I returned!

    Again, maybe not the best example, but if Best Buy knew that I was not afraid to perform such an activity.. wouldn't they want to change their return policy for people like me? They wouldn't have to change the policy for EVERYONE, instead, they'd put people in buckets and treat them differently based on their past behavior.

    It's basically like your credit score.. the better you use your credit, the better your score. Mess up a couple times, and it hurts your score and subsequently makes it harder to get more credit.

    Data, data, data... augmented reality?, data, data...

    PS: you were definitely be remarketed to for those guitars!

    What would be cool is if one could easily remove their remarketing cookies.. so I'm shopping for furniture.. hitting a bunch of different furniture sites and landing on their remarketing lists.. and then I finally buy one.

    If I'm lucky, the one I buy form will put me on a "purchased" list and use the custom combos to NOT show ADs to me anymore.. but what about the other 50 furniture sites I visited?

    It'd be cool if I could remove all remarketing cookies from sites categorized as furniture all at once...

    Is Google listening to this!? -- Sorry for the blog post of a comment.. great post Chris - I like the way you think :)
    • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

      You can stop all that endless remarketing of things you looked at for grins or things you looked at and bought. Turn on tracking protection in IE 9 and add a list that blocks all the analytics sites. If everybody did that, after a while the search provider with the best organic search would win (pining for the days when Alta-Vista gave you the facts, not the facts as altered by who advertises when where and how with the search engine provider.
  • Google is Just. Plain. Spooky.

    But enjoy your time in Googleland. Google says "thanks for the data."
    I guess what's to be learned from all this is that if you give people enough free stuff, they will tolerate any amount of invasion of privacy
    • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)


      Imagine you go to a free information booth at the mall and ask where to buy shoes. The person in the booth tells you where five different shoe stores are and what kinds of shoes they have and the types of prices you can expect to pay. A week later you come back by the booth and the person, remembering you and your previous interest in shoes, tells you that one of the shoe stores has a sale going on. Most people would consider this a valuable service and thank the information booth person for the information. You apparently would charge the person with an invasion of privacy when none has occurred.

      In this scenario, the information booth worker has figured out a clever mnemonic device to help them remember visitors to the booth and their interests. Then, the booth worker works out an arrangement by which they can pass information and advertising along to potential customers on behalf of the stores. Of course, while they provide the information to you free of charge, the merchants pay them to help them target potential customers. This is well within the rights of the information booth worker to do since they are under no obligation to aggregate the information you need and provide it to you at their own expense. Since you gave the the information willingly by way of using the free service they provided, they are well within their rights to use that information to finance their operation and even profit from it.

      The information booth worker does not need to sell your information to the merchants who would find little value in it compared to the service the booth provides to them. What would the shoe store do with a huge list of people who inquired about shoes, especially when there is little to no reliable personally identifying information about who these people are? It is much better to just pay the information booth when a customer is successfully directed to their business than to pay for and then try to utilize an aggregated list of people who "might" be interested in shoes.

      In this scenario, nobody's personal information was bought or sold and nobody's privacy was invaded and most rational people would consider this to be a valid and ethical business model and a good service to have available.

      Google's services, while a bit more complex in the variety of "free" services they offer and millions of people use, are no less straight forward in the terms of service of the free information booth. You use the service; they track, record and aggregate data on your usage. At no point is this an invasion of your privacy as your usage of the services they provided is the same as you telling the information booth worker that you are looking for a shoe store.

      If you can find a more ethical business model to replace these free services and fill the void that would be left if this business model is too unethical to be allowed to exist then feel free to change the world as we know it. I welcome you to try.
      • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)
        Were I the cheating husband type, and Google merged my emails to the girlfriend and to the wife, I think I would be in boiling hot water. If Google is to collect information, then I want a say in which part is private, if taken out of context.
      • If the "information booth worker" followed me around....
        and pointed out businesses, etc., that I might want to buy something from, I would consider that an invasion of privacy and, yes, spooky.
      • The junkie doth protest too much, methinks
        Google used to be a search engine, now it's a worldwide shopping mall. I'm not really concerned about my privacy. I'm aware that it's pretty much gone the minute I turn on any of my devices.
        What irks me about the whole data gathering thing is precisely the glorified shopping mall experience you so enthusiastically use as an example - twice!
        Friday is pizza day for us too, but I don't need Google to tell me where to call. I know where I'll be calling. It's the same place I've been calling for the last 8 years. I call them because they have the best pizza I've ever had, and call me crazy but I don't NEED to find out if there's a better/cheaper/hyper pizza out there somewhere in the universe. Somehow, repeatedly eating the best friggin' pizza I've ever had is not merely "good enough" but downright delightful for me.
  • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

    I'll be sticking with Bing. I don't want to give any of my data to Google while they make a profit off of it and I don't see a dime of that money. If they want my data they can pay me.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • RE: Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

      @Loverock Davidson- Because Bing doesn't track your search habits? Guess what? We run ads on Bing, too, that target customers based on search. Unfortunately, Microsoft just isn't very good at it.

      I would argue, though, that Google does pay you in the form of services for which you would otherwise have spend a fair amount of cash. How much does Verizon charge a month for "visual voicemail" (a poor substitute for Google Voice)? And this is just one example.