Google...Evil?

Few tech company-names ever become common English-language terms. No one ever asks you to "Microsoft" a document or "Apple" a video. Yet the verb "to Google" is so commonplace it's lost its initial-cap. As journalists, we often google companies we report on to check their press releases or find biographical information on their executives.

To be honest, I don't google anymore. Search engines like Surf Canyon work just as well, and since Google changed their privacy policy March 1, I follow best security practices. Let me explain.

A heterogenous system is more secure than a homogenous system. Techs who set up complex systems seldom source all their hardware and software from a single vendor. A multi-vendor setup is common--of course vendors know this, and often boast that their gear works well with other vendors' equipment. This is good security policy.

Yet as of March 1, Google implemented a controversial new unified privacy policy, despite requests from EU regulatory bodies to delay it until further investigations impact have taken place, wrote Derek du Preez in Computerworld UK.

"The policy will take effect from today and has allowed Google to consolidate more than 60 of its privacy policies into one main document," wrote du Preez. "By doing this, Google will be able to unify customer data across most of its products."

You might think this doesn't affect you. Sure, you have a Gmail account, but you don't use Google Docs or Google Apps or Google+ so what's the problem? Well, you love those silly cats on YouTube, right? Who do you think owns YouTube? Google. Your mother publishes your baby photos on Picasa. Who owns Picasa? Google. The problem is that you have now relinquished control--and to which specific sites? Do you know?

In a soon-to-be-published interview by CWHK's Teresa Leung, Henry Chang, information technology advisor, Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data, said: "We have been in talks with Google because the company hasn't provided information on user options. At this stage, there isn't any choice to opt-out of this scheme of letting Google to share more of your data across its services--you either continue to use the Google services as usual or you delete your account."

A bigger question: does Google's new policy contravene Hong Kong's Privacy Data Protection Ordinance (PDPO)?

James Ball, writing in UK newspaper The Guardian, used Google's own slogan to question its actions: "[Google's] early and famous mantra of 'don't be evil' evolved into an "evil scale" in 2006, when it decided that offering filtered search results in China was the lesser of two evils, and so acceptable."

"The concern unique to Google is its scale," wrote Ball. "Opting out of the Guardian is relatively straightforward, but avoiding Google is far more difficult."

Indeed it is. My response to Google's policy? I went to their site and cancelled my Gmail account. The cancellation process displays a set of boxes and requires you check each service you will no longer be a member of (hint: there's more than YouTube and Picasa). They've lost my business, whatever it was worth.

Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems once apocryphally said: "Privacy is dead--get over it." I respectfully disagree. Aggregating private information is not a policy that should be encouraged, regardless of business climate and slogans like "don't be evil."

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