April 07, 2004

"Big Brother nominated for Google Award"

The Register has a funny/serious article by Andrew Orlowski: "Big Brother nominated for Google Award"

I'll say no more, since I'm quoted (thanks!):

"What seems to be missed is that the sheer scale of centralization of Google's service is frightening," writes Seth Finkelstein, who dubs it 'Total Information Awareness', after the DARPA data collection project led by convicted Iran Contra felon John Poindexter. "Every message you send, every message you receive, in ONE PLACE, tagged and sorted and indexed, with a history of who sent it to you and who you sent it to (traffic analysis!). And correlate it all with your web-searching, and your social network (Orkut) and your shopping (ads).

I was thinking of how to explain the problem of Gmail to people who conceive of it as simply another web-mail reading service. I came up with this:

Imagine Google-ing your mail. Great! Now imagine John Ashcroft Google-ing your mail. See the problem?

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on April 07, 2004 01:35 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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I guess I still don't understand how this is different from Yahoo mail. I do see the threat, but I don't know why this is just coming up now...

Yahoo has a ton of services centralized in one place: search, mail, bill paying, groups, advertising, shopping, etc. It seems to be like they'd be an even bigger privacy threat. What's the difference between Yahoo and Google from the perspective of the DoJ?

Posted by: Brian St. Pierre at April 7, 2004 02:58 PM

Simple: Indexing

If the DoJ went to Yahoo, and said "Please tell us everyone who uses the words "terrorism" and "bomb" and "WMD" in a mail message, then Yahoo might be able to do it in theory, but as far as I know, they would be hard-pressed to implement it.

With Google GMail, it would be a feature. Sure, buy our "PATRIOT" ad product, no problem ...

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at April 7, 2004 03:08 PM

The problem with all the paranoia over this is that its being placed on the wrong organization. Its even evident in your response to Brian St. Pierre. The problem isn't Google's GMail service but rather those that would misuse it, i.e. John Ashcroft. Thus, the answer is not to try to stop GMail, but to stop John Ashcroft. I agree that debate is good, but I think we need to accept that at some point everything you have ever said, written down and maybe even thought will someday be public and indexable. Just because this is a nightmarish idea right now, doesn't mean that it will be forever.

I guess ultimately my point is that whenever some new privacy killing technology comes out, instead of first espousing its evil, perhaps its better to examine how it will make our lives better and how we can minimize any negative consequences. This has to be a better plan than just permanantly dismissing the idea of indexed email.

Posted by: Matt Wallace at April 7, 2004 10:32 PM

Seth -

I see your point, but I guess I'm making an assumption that at least one of Yahoo, Hotmail, etc will probably come up with something similar before too long.

Anyway, I think Matt's on the right track. It's inevitable that mail indexing is going to happen. You can't fight it. What you can fight for are limits on the ability of the DoJ and friends to abuse the technology.

Posted by: Brian St. Pierre at April 8, 2004 11:59 AM

"...The problem with all the paranoia over this is that its being placed on the wrong organization..."

Only if a priori, you have judged that the organization in question can be trusted, and shouldn't be held to account. I don't think any organization - public or private - should be given a free pass on such an important issue.

We certainly know a lot more about how Google values privacy than we did a week ago. From Larry Page's fight for The Right To Cross-Reference: '"It might be really useful for us to know that information" to make search results better, he said. "I'd hate to rule anything like that out."' [LA Times, April 2]

...to the subsequent backtracking:

'Rosing said there will be an information firewall separating
Google's search engine from Gmail. "We don't use the data
collected on one service," he said, "to enhance another."' [AP, April 6]

'Mr. Rosing said Google did not create links between users'
search activity and their Gmail accounts. 'We have no immediate
plans to do so in the future,' he said."' [NYT, April 8]

An organization that's aware of users' privacy fears should not need the issue spelled out in 72-point type.

Posted by: Andrew Orlowski at April 9, 2004 02:12 PM