Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/12/28/google_privacy_mission_impossible/

Google borrows Facebook's privacy manual

What's behind the latest cockup?

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Security, 28th December 2007 14:08 GMT

Google can count itself fortunate that a serious privacy storm it caused took place in the run up to Christmas - when world+dog was otherwise occupied. By altering the behaviour of one of its web-services, Google ran foul of its own Privacy guarantee - and continues to violate it.

Here's what happened.

In 2005 Google introduced a web-based RSS reader, in response to the popular and well-regarded Bloglines. Like Bloglines, Google's Reader service permitted users to share their feeds with a selected group of friends.

On December 14, this all changed. Google permitted anyone in your Google contact book to see your "shared" list. Passing acquaintances, employers and spouses were now able to read a user's RSS inbox.

Google cheerfully explained the change here, with the advice, "happy sharing!"

There was no option to opt-out of the "feature" - all Google Readers users were opted in by default.

"People on my contact list are not necessarily my "friends". I have business contacts, school contacts, family contacts, etc., and not only do I not really have any interest in seeing all of their feed information, I don't want them seeing mine either," responded one user. "This is a major privacy problem."

Other users pointed out that Google had violated its own Privacy Policy, which reads:

Send the link to your friends and family, and they'll be able to read what you've recommended. They can bookmark your page in their browsers for easy access, and they can even subscribe to it in Google Reader."

"This feels like a decision made by some 23 year old Google employee who thinks everyone wants to be on the latest social networking craze that all of his friends like," wrote another user.

Google responded that the data had always been "shared" - only previously, the URL was obfuscated. As you'd expect, this only made things worse.

So Google both changed the rules mid-game, and opted everyone into the change: two aspects of Facebook's notorious creepware advertising program Beacon. All your Facebook "friends" could now see what you'd bought through affiliate merchants, such as Amazon.com and eBay. This was beautifully encapsulated by GMSV's headline - "Honey, that jewelry and lingerie purchase you just made better be for me or you’re dead meat"

The philosophy of Creepware

What is frequently overlooked in such instances is the deliberation behind the decision. The poster quoted above suggested naivety and herd instinct were behind the "23 year old" Google employee's decision. But there's a creepy consistency to these serial privacy violations that is very evident to us - if not the developer who implements it. To see it, you have to look at the bigger picture, into the Hive Mind hooey of Web 2.0.

Wired sub editors smuggle through a spoof (February 2000)

Life now imitates parody

What happens after such an incident is that the company in question is typically forced into an apology, regrets "causing offence" (but rarely the decision itself), and the issue is forgotten.

Then it tries again. And again.

Yet these are not accidental decisions - and they follow a disturbing pattern. For example, it's now customary for the media to refer to AOL's release of anonymized search logs last year as a "leak". But this is incorrect; you may recall this was no accident, it was a quite intentional - a gift to the Web.

AOL's search logs were released as a gift to the robo-sociologists of the blogosphere. (It was released by AOL's "labs", and at the time bloggers complained when AOL withdrew the data from their servers).

In this grand experiment, we're merely the lab rats, generating the data. The researchers don't know what they're looking for, per se, but the expectation is that the answer will loom before their eyes - like a shape or a phrase coalesces out of the dots of a stereogram. This is the great hope of the Hive Mind.

In RoboSociology 2.0, the epistemological quest is merely pattern recognition, and has already brought us revelations such as the news that people get more drunk at weekends.

Isn't it worth sacrificing just a little privacy when we get breathroughs like that? OK, maybe not...

This is a project without a name yet, although "Junk Science" will have to do for now.

Meanwhile, let us mull over a comment issued on December 20 by Google CEO Eric Schmidt:

"For us, privacy does not begin or end with our purchase of DoubleClick. We have been protecting our users' privacy since our inception, and will continue to innovate in how we safeguard their information and maintain their trust."

(Which brings to mind Chomsky's famous quote about Reagan and the truth. The President sincerely believed himself not be lying, having persuaded himself of the "truth" to his own satisfaction.)

A modest proposal

So what's the answer - must we all go "off grid" to avoid the data harvest? Not necessarily, perhaps.

A Reg reader recently suggested that there was a simple solution to the UK Government's ID card obsession - extending in all directions at once - and it might translate usefully here.

The solution to this disaster is to obtain and publish the data contained on as many ID cards as possible as and when they are introduced, starting with oneself. As long as the police are not instructed to drag grannies from their beds at 4.00am to be enrolled, then a compromised ID per se cannot serve as a basis for refusing a person's normal rights and entitlements.

The consequence is that the UK Govt will be looking for at least 2 Luther Blissetts, the real one, me of course, and my namesake, in order to collect taxes from.

Almost two years ago I chanced upon the twilight zone of spam-blogs. It's a fascinating business. I interviewed the man behind a tool called Blog Mass Installer, which could create and populate 100 "blogs" in 24 minutes. It's undoubtedly the most flourishing corner of the web "ecology" - just see how well Google's own Blog Search Engine copes with a simple search term of your choice.

My suggestion - and it's probably a glass-half-full suggestion - is that we employ some of these formidable software talents to create our personal fictions on our behalf.

Facebook has already tried to sue an MP for impersonating himself - I suggest we focus our attentions here.

(Email and seasonal stereograms to the usual, please.)®