12:08pm

Wed February 29, 2012
Digital Life

Google Wins. He's Giving Up On Privacy

That's it. They win. He's giving up his privacy.

Trying to maintain privacy in contemporary America is just too time consuming, too complicated, too exhausting. He can't tell the good guys from the bad guys anymore. He doesn't know whom to trust.

There are so many relentless assaults coming at all angles — from closed-circuit cameras to GPS trackers to online cookies to spammers, hackers, malware makers, spyware spinners, identity thieves and countless other assailants — he cannot fight them all anymore. They never sleep. They are always evolving, always pushing, always changing privacy settings and terms of service agreements.

Privacy fatigue, they call it. Google is not the first company to wear him out; it's just the latest. On Thursday, the omnipotent digital empire is rolling out new privacy rules. New default settings will allow Google to cross-reference a logged-in user's activity among its vast and varied Internet presences, which include the elegant Google search engine, the cool YouTube video repository and the impressive inner workings of Android phones.

Google says it is initiating the changes for the good of the user. Consumer advocates and privacy-protection groups don't see it that way. They fear that Google is gathering too much personal information — without a person's consent — and spreading it all over the place. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who is co-chairman of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, is quoted in The Boston Globe as saying: "The new Google privacy policy is: You have no privacy."

So is Google good or not? Helpful or not? And what about Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Amazon and others who seem to be all up in his grill and clocking his every move? They roll out new timelines, new service agreements, new possibilities. Sometimes they shut down familiar formats and useful applications with nary an apology or explanation. They remind us who calls the shots.

Sure the Internet user is paranoid about his privacy. In fact, as more and more security swirls around in the world about him, he somehow feels less and less secure. He sees surveillance cameras hidden in traffic lights, birdhouses, clocks, exit signs, sprinkler nozzles, smoke detectors, air purifiers and who knows what else. And he has read about programs and software glitches that allow complete strangers to secretly observe him through his own webcam and other gadgets.

He feels watched. And unable to maintain privacy They know where he lives.

So he is just giving up.

Cool New Tools

"It would be a terrible mistake to give up on privacy," says Rebecca Jeschke. "And it would be just what marketers and the government want."

Jeschke is director of media relations and a digital rights analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that advocates for consumers in the digital realm.

"I agree that it's exhausting right now," Jeschke says. "Sometimes I find myself shrugging my shoulders and relaxing my guard here and there just because I'm tired, and I am one of the people who really should know better. But the conclusion here is not that we should give up, but that it should not be this hard."

The fact is, battling for privacy rights doesn't have to be such a challenge, Jeschke says. "We can and should demand privacy protections from hardware and software developers that are clear and easy to understand."

To Jeschke's foundation, the recently announced agreement between the State of California and a half dozen mobile app platform providers is a hopeful sign. The deal, struck with Amazon, Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Research In Motion, encourages the developers to be more clear and forthcoming in their privacy policies. Attorneys general from more than 30 states have signed a letter to Google questioning the propriety of the new privacy stipulations, NPR reports.

The developers need to take the next step, Jeschke says, and actually build in robust privacy protections from the start. "We should not have to give up the cool new tools of the future in order to protect our privacy," she says. "I don't want a future where if I'm not constantly supervigilant, then I lose all my privacy and it's my fault. That doesn't have to be the case, unless we give up. So don't give up!"

Targeting Users

He wonders: What if every time you got into your car, the dashboard had been changed? There were new buttons, new ignition codes, new media knobs? And there were new rules of the road? And all of the signs had been changed? What if every time you sat down to type, the keyboard keys had been rearranged? What if every time you walked into your house, the furniture had been moved and you couldn't sit where you used to?

Google is shifting the furniture on him again. It's weird enough that he gets ads in his Gmail account obviously based on private email he has written. Now under the new rules, Google will be able to combine his activities on the company's Gmail service with his Google search engine requests, his YouTube video habits and his interactivity with all other Google-owned offerings to create a dynamic profile that might prove very valuable to reputable — and perhaps not so reputable — marketing and sales firms.

Under the new policy, writes Hiawatha Bray of The Boston Globe, "all information about any user signed into any Google account will be combined in a single database. Google, which makes money by selling and placing online ads, said it will be able to deliver more accurate search results and advertising that is more relevant to individual customers. And its ability to speak to individual interests and habits will become even more precise."

The result, Bray writes, "would also boost Google's advertising business by helping to target users with the ads most likely to interest them. Companies would probably buy more ads on Google's various sites, and pay more for them, if the company can promise that it is reaching more interested buyers."

According to a statement issued by Google, and quoted by various newsgathering sites, "Our updated privacy policy will make our privacy practices easier to understand, and it reflects our desire to create a seamless experience for our signed-in users."

On Google, he finds a list of Frequently Asked Questions and reads words of reassurance. Google goes out of its way to allay his concerns. "The new policy reflects our efforts to create one beautifully simple, intuitive user experience across Google," it states. "Our goal remains to provide you with as much transparency and choice as possible, and our privacy principles remain unchanged."

Google promises him that he still will have choice and control. That it is not collecting more data about him. That Google is not planning to disclose information about him "publicly." Nor will Google sell his personal information. "We don't sell our users' personal information. It's simply not how we operate," the company says.

The words are soothing and tonally responsible. But he can't help but wonder: If Google has nothing but his best interests in mind, then why are all these brilliant people — privacy lawyers, attorneys general and others — up in arms? Why are other people, people who have spent more time and energy exploring privacy erosion, so upset?

He knows he should read more. He knows he should drill down into the finest print. He knows he should spend hours learning how to use the tools to adjust his settings. But he is just so tired.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.