Is Google Evil?
If Google is evil, is it evil by design, or by virtue of what it does and how it does it?
If Google is not evil by design, is what it does still evil?
If Google isn't evil in any way, are the results of Google's operations harmful to personal privacy?
If personal privacy is not important to users, should protecting it be important to Google?
What exactly is Google doing and as importantly, with which parties does Google share its databases [if any] and what do they do with the data?
Is there any form of "Oversight Committee" providing any measure of control over what Google does, or how it does it?
All of the above questions apply in equal measure to the likes of Yahoo, Microsoft and other companies aggregating and analyzing information, which includes information and data types reflecting personal, private, or otherwise restricted information. My own personal question to Google and any similar company would not be so narrowly focused - it would be whether what Google, or Yahoo, or any such company is doing is in any way harmful to individuals and the societies in which they live. I do not intend to provide answers to these questions, nor do I intend to define for others what is, or is not evil to them. I will state that I do not use Google, or any of its desktop or web based software. Instead, I do intend to encourage people to ask a lot of questions and continue to research any and all technologies that may affect their privacy.
DISCLAIMER: I retired from active federal service after serving and leading in organizations which, where in part, responsible for the collection, processing and dissemination of information, as derived from the collection of information "by parties other than the intended recipients." Unlike private organizations, U.S. intelligence agencies operate under very strict and persistent external oversight. Contrary to recent popular press reporting, the directives which govern oversight are never violated. On a personal note, I regard my work for the U.S. Government as having been a privilege - a privilege to serve a great and noble people and alongside the best and brightest minds a nation has ever produced. It was and is an environment where even the best of people feel as though they have to hustle just to keep up.
Before anyone may begin to ask whether Google or any similar business and its practices constitute that which one might regard as evil, one has to understand the nature of surreptitious collection, or the collection of information about which there is no evidence of the collection - in government parlance this distinguishes and differentiates operations which are covert from operations which are clandestine. Covert operations reflect that something was done, but those doing it remain unknown, whereas clandestine operations do not reflect that anything was done at all - much less by any identifiable party. This definition and distinction is important, because companies like Google are known and some of what they do is also known - so by their nature, what they do is not clandestine and in most cases, what they do isn't covert either. Rather, what Google and companies like it do is not necessarily known, as in understood, and like governments and what they do, this is where what is done may injur people and hazard their well being - in this case by exposing information that is regarded as private and personal to unintended recipients. This does not suggest that what companies like Google do, is either legal, or illegal - it is to say that what they do is not necessarily understood and by virtue of that lack of understanding, there exists the potential for abuse and excess - where such operations depart from what people understand to be true, or accept. To help people further understand what I mean, what Google and companies like it do each day is not much different from what intelligence organizations do - each Collects, Processes and Disseminates information - this is the intelligence cycle, and it is not just similar to governmental operations, it is identical in this regard. Where they differ is in the application of oversight and the imposition of controls before collection begins - within U.S. Government agencies both oversight and controls are used to help prevent abuses.
What people understand to be true and what they accept is perhaps the most important consideration when assessing whether Google is evil or whether what it does is evil. Where any one person accepting what Google does and whereby that acceptance one person's information includes personal and private information about another person without that person's understanding and acceptance, is possibly where Google and others like it, may violate the privacies most people expect. This is not to be confused with collateral information, which is that information obtained outside of an activity's own collection sources, and perhaps fused with it. For example, if an activity obtains collection [raw traffic] by electrical means, and then fuses that information with collection from an additional source external to it, then the additional information is regarded as being collateral. If however, an activity like Google collects information about one user and his or her contact information and by doing so also collects the contact information about those with which the original target communicates, then this additional information may be about and used opposite a person whom has a) no knowledge of what is being done and b) may not accept the terms associated with the collection and use of personal, and private information. Such information would not however, be collateral, as some in our press have suggested.
Another consideration one must entertain when asking whether Google is evil, or whether what it does is evil, must include how one regards Google and its operations and how any one individual defines that which is evil. One would have to ask these questions, and perhaps the problem is that they are not being asked by Google and companies operating in similar ways. In fact, one would have to ask all people affected by Google and similarly operating companies - which by now, includes nearly all people with access to digital communications technologies or any imaged building and in some cases a likeness - like one's own face. So if one has something as common as a face, there is a chance that Google has a copy of an image of it and that others may as well. They may not have asked permission to obtain the image, and they may not have asked permission to share that image freely and throughout the public networks and Internet. Similarly, if asked, would a person have any means to control access to the image, or any amplifying and contextual information regarding it? Also, how does one know, and how would one be advised that such information was shared, when, with whom and for what purpose and to what effect? By the way, the answers to these questions and thousands more, are required to be answered by government intelligence agencies before collection may begin - not after and certainly well before any processing, or dissemination is allowed. One may then ask, do the lack of controls over the information gathered about individuals also, or in and of itself constitute that which one would regard as evil?
No one may answer for another - and therein presents the challenge I personally have regarding Google, Yahoo, Microsoft Live Search and all other activities collecting, processing and disseminating information. It also presents the next and by no means last, question one might ask when assessing Google, any evil attached to it and all that may come from it. Did Google ask for permission? Did Google advise in advance? Did Google provide an easy non-technical means to remove any information one may not wish to be shared with others? Did, or does any similar activity do the same? If asked, what right does any one person have to answer for another - I think, none. I assess than no one person may answer such questions for any other person.
When I presented this argument a few weeks ago, a friend and colleague countered by saying, "So, you mean that if I copy and paste your contact information from your public website and send that to a friend of mine, or if I copy your public website's web address and email that, then I would be in violation of your privacy?" I answered by saying, "Of course not. That is ridiculous - I after all, created and published that information to the public. The difference is that Google and Yahoo and others did not ask permission to profit from my information and where their desktop search engine, or free email services harvest a users information and personal behaviors, further, more serious violations may have occurred."
Right now there is much more that is not known, than that which is understood, about how much of our personal information Google and others may have and how it may have been shared. I assess it is essential that we begin to take greater responsibility for the information that is made available about ourselves and made available or sold across the public networks and that effort must begin with an increased awareness and more education about companies like Google and what they do.
I have gathered up a loose collection of links to stories, blogs and opinions others are beginning to share on this subject. By offering them here, I do not mean to imply that I agree, or disagree with any one point made by any of the authors or publishers and I encourage all people to ask a lot of their own questions as they continue to explore the issues presented here. It's your face and I assess we should all understand how it is being presented and to whom and for what purpose.
Google named worst privacy offender in study, Ars Technica, by Nate Anderson
Initial assessment here, http://www.privacyinternational.org/issues/internet/interimrankings.pdf
Assesses Google to be, “hostile to privacy”
Google buys anti-malware browser virtualization startup, ZDNet, Ryan Naraine
Beware of that man between you and your Google Desktop, ZDNet, Ryan Naraine
Google buys RSS Company FeedBurner, ZDNet, Elinor Mills
Why Google is more dangerous than Microsoft, ZDNet, Donna Bogatin
Google Gears: NOT a Microsoft killer, ZDnet, Donna Bogatin
Google Gears churns toward Microsoft, ZDNet, Elinor Mills
Google security vulnerabilties stack up, The Register, Dan Goodin
New vulnerability strikes heart of Web 2.0, The Registry Developer, David Norfolk
Unprotected Google directory spills database data, ZDNet, Ryan Naraine
Overtaking Google Desktop, The Hacker Webzine, Posted By 0x000000
http://www.0x000000.com/?i=195&bin=11000011 video of the detection and exploit here,
How to put blinders on Google Street View, Webware from CNET, by Rafe Needleman
Google Complaint Targets Vista Search, eWeek’s Microsoft Watch, by Joe Wilcox