I was “lucky” enough to get in the second round of invites for a Google+ account and immediately logged on, set up my profile and added friends to circles. Then I saw some people were posting already. I read, I followed more people and added them to circles.
I looked at the “Share what’s new” box thinking, what do I write as my first post on Google+? And I froze. I couldn’t add anything. I couldn’t contribute to this ever growing database of information about me.
I still remember when Google first started in the search engine industry. I remember finding the results amazing and much more relevant than any other search engine. Google quickly became synonymous with search and the others fell by the way side. Even Bing hasn’t managed to break in to the market significantly.
In their years, Google have kept innovating and providing awesome services. Google Maps, GMail, Google Calendars, Google Docs, Google Reader, YouTube, Google Shopping, Google Checkout, Google Finance, Blogger. You can even use Google Apps and get a swathe of these services for your business.
Until now, largely, these services have allowed you to manage your online life in one place. There has been little in terms of social networking though. They had Orkut, Buzz and Wave, all of which flopped. Google struggled to enter this segment for quite some time. Until Google+.
When Google+ was announced, I was sceptical. It offered very little more than Facebook already did, and we’ve seen Diaspora grow stagnant after its launch. Diaspora had less momentum from the outset, it didn’t have an existing user base, and was less functional than Facebook, all issues that didn’t affect Google+, but the impetus for Facebook users to move was low. One article I read likened it to being offered a trade for your car with one that matched yours exactly in every way - you wouldn’t bother, would you. So why would people switch to Google+?
I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ve been told by a source that I find trustworthy that the people who were invited to try Google+ first were thought leaders and trend setters in their communities, mostly technical but also very well connected. How did Google know who these people were? They’d been analysing their email, search habits, network interaction, authority on subjects. Stands to reason - if you know who in your target demographic is most likely to play with and rave about a new technology, you’d get them to try it first, wouldn’t you?
So, I looked at the “Share what’s new” box thinking, what do I write as my first post on Google+? And I froze. I thought about all the information Google already had on me: what I searched for, any emails I sent to GMail users, all my phone contacts (I use Android), where I’d been, gone, wanted to go, where people I knew live (Google Maps), what I’m doing when, where and with whom (Google Calendar), how much I’ve lent friends, which address companies have for me, email addresses of people who came to conferences I’ve organised (all stored in Google Docs), which web sites I read regularly (Google Reader), what types of movies I like to watch, things I’m learning, what I find funny (YouTube), what I’m looking to buy at the moment (Google Shopping), my credit card details (Google Checkout) and what stocks I have or am interested in (Google Finance).
Add to that, they know every single web site I’ve been to that uses Google Analytics, when I visited it, from which country, on what type of computer. And if you have the Google toolbar installed in your browser, they could be getting sites that don’t use their analytics software.
Do I really want to continue to feed this profiling machine? Until now I’ve been concerned, but for the most part what I put in is about me, and I can control that. Whether or not I do is another matter, and largely convenience wins out in the battle for privacy (and isn’t that what Google, Facebook, et al are all counting on?).
While discussing the privacy and profiling issues of Google+ with others a few days ago, it occurred to me. I’ve actually become part of the machine. I’ve been categorising people for Google in a way that only friends can. Google+ has circles (they’re like lists in Facebook) to which you add contacts. I could categorise someone as female, open source, conference, business, melbourne, likes partying, php, snow sports, … I’ve just told Google how I categorise that person. Sure, they can get some or all of that information from elsewhere, but I’ve added weight to these attributes. Others will categorise people differently, allowing Google to build a mesh network of people and interests, where they intersect, and how strong those links are.
In Ben Elton’s book, Blind Faith, Trafford works for a government department who’s sole purpose is to profile people. I don’t remember if they had one or not, but they were at least working on an algorithm to determine the likelihood of two people meeting at a certain place at a certain time.
Understand, I’m not making Google out to be evil or malicious. They are a company that makes money from profiling people. That doesn’t concern me. Much.
What concerns me is the Government Request Tool. Google and Facebook, and likely other large ISPs in the US, have an online access portal that allows the US Government to access the data. There is a process involved that adds the requirement of a warrant and court approval for access - once approved, the government department gets immediate access to the information. There are a number of problems I see:
- most judges still don’t understand the intricacies of web sites, databases, hosting, and so forth, to a sufficient degree to understand the requirements and needs of law enforcement,
- if there’s a way in, then you can circumvent the process - there’s no way to know that a warrant wasn’t approved under duress, lack of understanding, or blatant collusion.
There are probably more that I can’t think of right now (add yours to the comments if you think of any). So my main concern is that Google, the world’s most powerful and thorough profilers, are getting more and more information on us all, and are now using us to build out those profiles even further - our own and those of our acquaintances - and the US government has direct access to this information. In fact any government has access to this information. There’s no reason the Saudi government couldn’t use their contacts in the US to get access to data on dissidents.
So what next? I’m considering splitting out my Google profiles and reducing the number of systems I use. They can still probably infer relationships between Google accounts and people (where they log in from, which computer, when, as the same time from one machine, sharing a Wifi network, etc), so I’m not sure if that’s adding effort without any gain.
As a colleague yesterday commented: “well, I suppose that’s a concern if that kinda think concerns you.” It’s people like him, who don’t even consider the implications, that will allow profiling continue, and civil liberties be eroded. I’m not saying don’t use Google+ (or Facebook). I’m saying know what you’re doing. Informed choice.