Should You Trust Google?

It's not the first time that I've had this question on my mind, but reading Matt Prigge's post last week -- which echoed my own sentiments about cloud computing -- led me to contemplate why we seem to consider Google's cloud more trustworthy than others.

Nobody pushes cloud computing harder than Google: Gmail, Google Docs, Google Apps, Google this, Google that. It's all based on a framework of remote resources and an amorphous blob of processing that's been tuned to spit out whatever we happen to be looking for, accept whatever documents we create, and send email and IM messages. And unlike so many other cloud service providers, Google seems to be accepted in this role, while others inspire skepticism.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Read about Google's adventures in Wi-Fi snooping in France. | Check out Neil McAllister's comparison of Google Docs and Microsoft Office Web Apps. ]

Most people have heard Google's corporate motto, "Do no evil," which has been challenged again and again, from censorship in China right up to Google Street View cars detecting and cataloging nearby Wi-Fi networks. Google claims the latter was inadvertent, but the company is still in hot water for it.

Nonetheless, Google is going a step further. To feed Google Places, it's placing cameras in certain public places and establishments, so you'll be able to view the interior of a restaurant, say, before heading out for dinner. And this seems perfectly fine to most people. I wonder what the reaction would be if Microsoft or Oracle tried the same thing? Would it be all roses and sunshine, or would people look at some crusty, beady-eyed Oracle guy and send him packing?

Somehow, Google has convinced the world that the company isn't, in fact, evil. That's despite the fact that Google is the most powerful force on the Internet today -- a position that companies with different corporate mentalities might wield like a truncheon.

But Google steps lightly and presumes nothing. The famously sparse home page remains free of ads and clutter -- a design so beloved that when Google introduced a Microsoft Bing-like background image a few weeks ago, the Internet exploded with outrage, and the situation was quickly reversed. But screaming about background images is like yelling at a prison guard for the quality of the food: You're still under lock and key, even if the consistency of the pudding improves.

Recently I've noted how much Facebook knows about you, but make no mistake, Google knows plenty, too. Based on IP information, they know your searches, naturally, but they also know everything you do with Google tools. Planning a trip? They know where you're going and how you're getting there if you use Google Maps and directions. Correlate that information with keywords in messages in your Gmail account and you can determine times, companions, specific destinations, the whole works. Use Google Maps on your smartphone and, technically, they could track your progress.

Given the paranoia about so many other intrusions such as government surveillance, snooping bosses, predators, whatever, it's amazing what Google has gotten away with. We've taken the candy, and in return we've given up significant levels of privacy to some huge corporate entity that we inexplicably trust not to betray us.

Maybe we trust Google because it has been benevolent in the past -- in not "monetizing" when it could have, in promoting open source here and there, and in providing whimsical perks to its employees. Sure, now and again we've sucked air and said, "Oops, that was kinda evil." But strictly speaking, the company hasn't screwed over enough people to dent its public image. The idea that Microsoft -- or even Apple -- could ever make that same claim is almost comical.

Google also has the benefit of being constantly available. Can you even recall the last time that Google Search was unavailable or down? Some apps have had snafus in the past -- notably Gmail -- but the Google main page has always been ready for service, fast as you please. And that impeccable reliability may have more to do with why folks trust Google with their details, documents, pictures, videos, and so on than anything else.

Me, I don't trust the cloud. I don't know that I ever will. Yet I have a Gmail account and I use Google Maps and a variety of other Google tools all the time. At this point in the evolution of the Internet, it's impossible not to. Let's just hope that those in control of our information can truly be trusted to do the right thing. Hope, in the end, is all we can do.

This article, "Why do we trust Google?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com.

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