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The Big G & Privacy

In addition to the original PageRank complaint that Daniel Brandt leveled against Google on his infamous site, he has since expanded to complain about privacy issues.

Now privacy is a bigger issue that PageRank, one that everyone who uses Google, and not just webmasters, should be concerned with. Mr. Brandt may feel that being a privacy advocate justifies his crusade, or at the very least it makes him appear more reasonable in the public eye. I would simply like to point out that when Mr. Brandt's site first launched, it had nothing to do with privacy, his only complaint was about Google not ranking his site well. I do not think it is right to take on the mantle of the benevolent privacy watchdog when his privacy complaints were merely afterthoughts.

That being said, the privacy issues around Google are mostly unfounded.

Milk & Cookies

One of the earliest, and easily the most ridiculous, privacy complaint about Google is it's so called never ending cookie. A cookie is a small piece of information stored on your PC for use by websites. It is how websites recognize you when you return. For instance, Amazon.com uses cookies to remember you when you return. This does not mean that Amazon.com stores your name, phone number, or credit card information in a cookie, they merely store a random numeric identifier that allows them to look up your account on their server. This is all that any cookie does. Cookies are not a security risk and are not a threat. If someone gets access to your cookies they do not gain any personal information about you. Someone would need to hack into a site, like Amazon.com, to get the personal information that your cookie helps you retrieve and if that were to happen cookies would have nothing to do with it.

Now, Google's cookie, in truth the cookie Google sets on your PC expires in 2038. Why such an arbitrary date? Well, its technical relating to the time system on Unix or Linux operating systems. Google uses this cookie to maintain your preferences, for instance whether or not to use content filters (to keep out the porn) or to use a certain number of results per page (like say 50 instead of the default 10). The only personal information Google has about you is your IP address (a string of numbers that indentifies your PC online and is necessary for Internet communication), which cannot be used to personally identify you without the cooperation of your Internet Service Provider, and even then it won't always be possible.

However, if you chose to give Google additional personal information (perhaps by using some of their other services) then obviously they'll have it. Of course, if you don't want them to have this information, do not give it to them.

Now, if you do not like Google's cookie, you can get rid of it. In Internet Explorer go to Tools>Internet Options>Privacy and turn off cookies. Personally, I am a well information website publisher, thus I know all the ins and outs of cookie usage, and I have my cookie settings set more liberally than my browser's defaults, I have the most open level of cookie settings. Why? Because I know they are benign and have mostly been given a bad reputation in the media. Cookies are impersonal little bits of data. They are used to save you from having to type things repeated when you revisit websites, and many are also used to limit the amount of advertising you see. That's right, accepting cookies can prevent popups. Legimitate advertisers don't want to flood you with ads anymore than you want to be flooded, so they use cookies to monitor and limit the amount you receive. So, in some cases, turning off cookies is like opening the flood gates.

Since it is so easy to block or remove cookies, I see no possible privacy threat with Google using a small cookie to allow you to customize the search a little bit. Also, remember the threat of cookies has been vastly hyped by the media and by money-hungry security companies trying to parlay consumer fears into increased sales.

Gmail

Google initially took some flack with their Gmail email service because storage was so large that users wouldn't have to delete anything, and that Google might not delete old stored emails either. People saw this as a huge privacy threat. Google could be reading their email, or giving it to the government.

This is true, I personally wouldn't want all my emails stored perhaps indefinitely on some server like that. So what did I do? Well… I don't use Gmail, I'm a professional and I find free email services to look unprofessional, so I was never interested in Gmail and the storage made me even less interested.

Also, believe it or not, no one has yet to put a gun to my head and force me to use it. Nor have I heard of any gun-to-head incidents reported elsewhere. It looks like Gmail is actually optional, no one has to use it.

What if you need email? Well Google certainly didn't invent free email, in fact they're about 10 years late for the prom. Microsoft's hotmail is perhaps the most well known, but Yahoo's service is also quite popular. In fact there are hundreds if not thousands of free email services out there. If your email is so private that you do not trust any service with handling it, then you can spend around $50 a year to get your own domain name and web hosting account and have your own email with your own domain.

Daniel Brandt also lamblasts Google's ads on their Gmail service, saying they are poorly targetted. This just underscores my point. It is a free service and he is complaining about the ads? Google has to make money too, and even if their targetting isn't perfect I really don't think a user who is paying $0 for the service as any room to complain.

Who is the Privacy Threat Now?

Recently there was a news story about the government seeking search records from search engines. AOL gave them the records, MSN gave them the records, Yahoo gave them the records, Google said no.

This is just another example of how Google is run by people with principles and ethics.

The Long & The Short of It

Google is very much an optional service. I find it hard to take any privacy threat from an optional service seriously. If you do not like Google's cookies, you can block them or delete them or use Teoma instead. If you do not like Gmail you can use some other email service. This all comes down to trust, and you should trust the companies that you do business with (or in this case, that run the services that you use). I personally trust Google, but if you do not the obvious answer is to use someone else.

For more information on cookies, or if you just don't believe me, check out the below links:
The Truth about Cookies
Are Cookies Dangerous?


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