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The Individual’s Demise

Google’s tentacles alarm privacy advocates


David Whittier, an assistant professor at the School of Education, says that Google’s reach into Web browsing histories is cause for concern.

Google’s recent announcement that it will begin advertising to its users — also known as the vast majority of the world’s Web surfers — based on their online browsing history has privacy advocates feeling very exposed.

A year ago, Google bought DoubleClick, the digital marketing giant that many large Web publishers use to track advertising, for $3.1 billion. Google gained access to DoubleClick’s ability to use a parcel of text, or “cookie,” that lives inside a Web browser to glean intimate specifics about a user, such as site preferences or the contents of electronic shopping carts. This move has broadened Google’s wide reach into personal browsing histories. When a Web surfer visits a site — Boston.com, for example — advertisements tailored to personal interests, culled from past online activity, soon will appear.

To address privacy concerns, Google stresses that it does not collect phone numbers or addresses, and allows users to opt out of interest-based ads.

David Whittier, an assistant professor at the School of Education, teaches cyber-ethics at BU. He says that Google’s marketing approach, while smart and innovative, represents a troubling trend. BU Today asked Whittier to explain.

BU Today: Google has begun to show ads to people based on their browsing history. What does this mean for our notion of privacy?
The idea of privacy has been generated from fear of tyranny on the political side and from people having freedom to associate without fearing repercussions, which is also very much related to fear of tyranny. Gmail, Google’s free e-mail service, can already scan the content of your e-mail and pick out key words and use those key words to deliver ads to a column on your Gmail screen. Interest-based advertising seems like an extension of the Gmail approach.

But Google is a corporation, not a government entity.
Throughout human civilization, people have been interested in privacy and have acted to define and protect privacy. It comes out of a natural human need to feel protected from governments, companies, whatever organizations exist. There are so many opportunities for corruption, misuse, and abuse — how information gets used, the idea that information can be stored indefinitely, developing comprehensive profiles electronically. So all that works against this fundamental impulse to establish and protect some right of privacy.

There are several dimensions to thinking about why that’s valuable. One I come back to is the idea of respect. The Internet has volcanically delivered the idea of the wisdom of the crowd. Crowd sourcing, the whole concept of Wikipedia, has accelerated the idea that the individual is a myth, that we’re all linked into this massive human organism. That undermines the idea of individual privacy, but the point at which that line of thought should stop is at respect for others.

Is it enough that Google has a mechanism that allows you to opt out of receiving interest-based ads?
No. The potential for misuse and abuse is always there. Google is really pushing the envelope. It’s a commercial entity, innovative, smart. It’s up to our society and government to try and figure out where the limits are and express that in a way that allows for innovation, but protects people’s need to respect one another.

But people continue to use Gmail knowing Google scans their e-mail content for advertising purposes.
They sacrifice privacy for free and convenient. But there may be a higher price to pay down the road. I think it’s wrong that Google says it owns the content of my e-mail. I understand the claim that because it offers me a free service, it can scan my e-mail and give me ads based on that e-mail. But for Google to say it owns it indefinitely seems wrong. That’s a big thing I’d like to pursue. All of this data collection should have an expiration date. I think our legislature needs to work on that.

What is the impact on college students who tend to use a lot of social networking sites?
I think it’s really confusing. Our society is rather incoherent right now with regard to that issue. Young people today have very little privacy. They are quite aware that every move they make can be monitored, recorded, shared. They’re not thinking about the trade-offs. They’re not anticipating looking for a job or worrying about political tyranny. On the one hand, young people are told, ‘Never give out your password and your ID; don’t give personal info,’ but on the other, everything about you already has been monitored everywhere you go. What’s the point of that warning, since they’re being monitored all the time already?

So how do you get through to the generation you’re teaching?
It has to be in their terms, in language they understand. And it would be helpful if there were a curriculum describing what privacy  means, the instinct for, and history of, privacy. Teachers and parents need to help young people learn to distinguish between public and private, to realize that information they may feel comfortable sharing now can be stored and distributed and become public at any time. That can be embarrassing or humiliating when their circumstances or friends change, as they certainly will. 

Getting a handle on these risks is an enormous task, especially when everything moves so quickly. When I talk about everything being so incoherent, that also played out in the Bush administration and the global war on terror, when government officials said that in order to protect the United States, they needed warrantless access to e-mail and telephone communications. That’s sacrificing liberty for some imagined security, which is exactly one of the things our Constitution was trying to prevent.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


One Comment on The Individual’s Demise

  • Virginia L Hanna on 03.31.2009 at 8:45 am

    Yes, yes, yes. And the inisistent idea that you “have nothing to hide” may be misleading: First, are you sure? Are you absolutely certain that you have NOTHING to hide? People are frequently convicted on “circumstantial” evidence alone–what about those people convicted and then exonerated when DNA proved their innocence? “Evidence” of wrongdoing may be found, and used against you, and you are not even guilty. Third, there is the Fifth Amendment, which provides that you not be required to provide evidence that will incriminate you, and this means even when you are INNOCENT. Do the First and Fourth Amendments even need to be mentioned–the freedom to say what you want without repercussions, and protection against unprovoked search? So, before you jump to say you have nothing to hide, and therefore need no privacy, ask yourself, is this true under ALL circumstances–past, present, and future? Government entities have picked up every trick that big business has conjured up, and this will be no different. The founding fathers provided for citizens’ rights in the future with the Ninth Amendment, which states that you might have other rights they haven’t thought of. Remember also that the Bill of Rights was written for the rights of the PEOPLE, not the rights of government, and any amendment that gives rights to the government over the rights of people is unconstitutional by definition. The Constitution is a fragile document; it needs protecting, even the right to bear arms, not for hunting, or for protecting yourself against criminals, but for maintaining distance from a tyrannical governemnt. Experience tells us that it is especially when we take privileges for granted that privileges are withdrawn. Privacy is a precious privilege that must not be taken for granted, lest it be withdrawn.

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