Saturday, October 13, 2007

Google Goggles

A couple of months ago I wrote about Google's march towards world domination. It seems I'm not the only one concerned with the depth and breadth of the ubiquitous brand. A recent article on Slate by Michael Agger asks, ""Does Google know too much about us?" According the Agger:

"By Googling, we are supplying the company data with which to parse and analyze us. The resulting profile has a huge value for advertisers, especially as more of us ignore mass culture in favor of our online microclimates. The "price" that we pay for Google's free services is to present ourselves as better targets for niche marketing."
Google tracks search terms, etc. via the use of "cookies"--which have long been used by websites to capture information about traffic. Cookies not only identify users as new or returning visitors to websites, but can store preferences and passwords as well. Google even has a feature called Hot Trends which identifies the top 100 search terms on any given day. Keywords generate sponsored ads--which pay for the technology, since it's free to users.

This is really no different from Nielsen ratings, or a grocery store club card or the targeted offers you get from your credit card company. They all use data generated from your viewing or buying habits to strategize and develop targeted marketing campaigns to entice you to spend more. All this may sound a bit too 1984 for most people's comfort levels--but you should keep in mind that this is AGGREGATE data for the most part. No-one is specifically interested in you as an individual. Just as a demographic living in a certain city, falling into a certain age range, etc. We're all just generic consumers to Google and company. They really don't care that you're downloading porn or playing Sudoku or snickering at the latest "news item" on The Onion. Unless it helps them figure out how to sell you stuff.

And Google has its advantages as well. I had a friend who googled a potential dating partner she had met via the internet. Found out he was engaged and living with his fiancee. Many quick and dirty background checks can be done via Google's search engine. And even if you don't show up in a listing of search results, all it takes is 15 minutes and 15 bucks to track someone down. Companies such as Intelius, Zabasearch and PrivateEye use public records to locate and/or do background checks on people.

So if you really want to stay under the radar, you need to do more than disable cookies on your computer. Home phone number, gas company bill, driver's license, library card, social security number--all these things provide information about who you are. I used to sigh and politely decline when stores asked for my phone number. They had my credit card number which meant they had all the information they needed (and then some!) from me. It's amazing the footprints we leave without even realizing it. It used to be that we worried about identity theft, but now it seems like it's even more important not just to maintain control of our identity, but our right to anonymity as well.

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