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Google…

January 13th, 2010 No comments

There has been some concern raised about the comment Eric Schmidt made on a CNBC interview recently. However, like most things the press and the general public get their hands on, it has been grossly misinterpreted. Here is the quote everyone is going on about:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

However if you look at the original transcript/video of the interview it makes a little more sense and isn’t as outrageous as previously thought. Here is his full answer:

Q: People are treating Google like their most trusted friend. Should they be?

A: I think judgement matters… If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time, and it’s important, for example that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities.

Here is a clip from the interview:

Granted he did make a mistake, the “you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” bit is misleading. However he was answering a very specific question, whether or not you should treat Google like a friend. I believe that anyone with half a brain can understand what he was trying to say. What he should have said is something along the lines of:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be discussing it on-line in the first place.

What I find most difficult to understand is the innocence and naivety of the on-line community. Google (and their like) are service providers, they deal with data, they search through it and index it. At a very basic level, they bring order to chaos…

Imagine (just for a moment) that the internet didn’t exist, and instead, we had massive notice boards on every street corner, where anyone could leave a message, ask a question or stick a picture. Google would be the company that goes around collecting and collating the contents on each and every one of these boards. It would then publish a directory listing the contents. Now, if you didn’t want anyone to know about something specific would you put it on these boards? I think the answer would be a universal “No!”… And you’re back in the real world!

I think the problem we have is with the anonymity that the internet appears to give us. We have access to the internet in the relative privacy of our homes and we project that feeling of security onto the internet. When we’re browsing onto the Financial Times, Fred’s Blog or any of the billions of pages available, we are doing it in the privacy of our home. There isn’t anyone looking over our shoulder watching our every move! You would see them, right?

Wrong… Every request that your computer makes over the internet has the potential of being recorded and logged. The internet is a tool, nothing more. It links and exchanges data between two or more computers. It is this that the innocents must be made aware of. The internet isn’t your friend, there is no such thing as privacy on the internet (unless you really know what you’re doing*).

There is one area where I do have some sympathy for the naive users and that is the intrusion and interception of email by Google and their like. It would be the same as postal workers opening your mail, reading the contents and pushing mailshots through your door based on what they had just seen. Here in the UK we have very strict laws related to mail interception, with lengthy imprisonments, the postal workers even have to sign the official secrets act.

When you sign up for an email service on-line you waive your rights to privacy and to me that is unfair. On top of that you are also forced to adhere to whatever laws are in place in the country where the company is run, independent of where you are located. For example, if you had a Google email account and lived in the UK, your messages could come under the US Patriot Act, giving the US government unrestricted access to your data.

This is a very complex area, with solid arguments both for and against and it needs discussing. International laws need to be agreed upon regarding personal on-line privacy. As we shift more and more of our personal and working lives on-line the safety barriers need to be in place, the primary goal should be the education of on-line users in security and privacy matters. Ignorance is most definitely not bliss!!

* Securing your personal data is a relatively simple process. There are applications freely available that enable the encryption of data and emails such as PGP and TrueCrypt. For more information see my section of personal privacy.

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