Privacy: Why Google Social Search Gives Me The Creeps

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Has Google started following us around? It's new Google Social Search feature, going live today, sure feels like it. And hints at what Google can do both for and to you with all the information it has collected.

Google's newest experimental project is called "Social Search" and it grabs relevant public content from your friends' and contacts' blog posts, Tweets, and social networking pages. The results are highlighted for you at the bottom of your search results," the company said in a blog post.

"When I do a simple query for [new york], Google Social Search includes my friend's blog on the results page under the heading 'Results from people in your social circle for New York.' I can also filter my results to see only content from my social circle by clicking 'Show options' on the results page and clicking 'Social,'" wrote Googlers Maureen Heymans and Murali Viswanathan.

In order to participate in the experiment, Google users must first sign-up. They must also have a public Google profile, which provides information used to figure out who is in your social circle. (Tony Bradley does a great job of describing the sign-up and user experience, so I won't repeat that here).

To assuage privacy concerns, Google points out that it is only displaying information already publicly posted on the Internet but that may be hard to find.

Like many, I have been giving Google lots of information about me: E-mail addresses, Web sites, a contact list, Google voice calls, search results, the content of my Web sites and blogs, credit card numbers, Google docs, and other things I probably don't even know about.

Because I don't use Gmail, they don't see all my messages--at least I don't think they do. But, just looking at the stories I read in Gnews everyday would tell you a whole lot about me.

My issue is not that Google knows this about me but what they do with it. Nobody has caught Google doing evil things with people's personal data and I am not accusing.

But, imagine what a President might ask Google to do in the wake of another 9/11-style terrorist attack? And how the company might respond. Consider how big telecom companies did respond after 9/11, providing telephone records and supporting authorized wiretaps.

If a President asked--and remember Barack Obama and Google's Eric Schmidt are close--would Google provide information it has about suspects? Use its data and profiling capability to find more suspects? If it did, how long would it be before we knew? And where, exactly, is the line between patriotism and invasion of privacy?

I am not a conspiracy theorist, birther, truther, or anything like that. But, online companies have already been criticized for cozying up with the "butchers of Beijing."

What might Adolf Hitler have done with all the information Google has available and the ability to massage it to say, identify not only Jews but also Jewish sympathizers? How much information would you want the Iranian or North Korean governments to have?

I am not accusing Google of doing anything illegal or even fattening. But, the company is gathering huge amounts of information about every user and has the ability, inclination, and economic incentives to turn it into minutely detailed profiles of what who we are, what we do, and how we think.

Google isn't alone in this, just looking at my Facebook and Twitter posts would tell you a lot about me. Still, Google is in a class of its own and I am concerned that current law and practice doesn't provide enough protection for either privacy or individual liberty.

By giving us "free stuff" like e-mail, voice mail, search results, applications, collaboration, analytics, etc., Google knows more about us than we may easily be able to remember about ourselves. And Google never forgets.

Today, that's not a problem (that we know of). Tomorrow, we may come to wish we'd stopped Google in its tracks and placed limits on its ability to aggregate personal information.

Social search is just an example of the good things Google can do. We can only imagine the bad stuff.

David Coursey tweets as @techinciter and can be contacted via his Web page.

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