Google prompts privacy perturbations (and cakeski)

Zut alors! C'est Monday's IT Blogwatch: in which Google launches its Web History feature, making people worry about their privacy. Not to mention some Russian incredible edibles...

Jeremy Reimer reports
:

Google's latest project is called Web History, and it offers registered Google Account users a chance to peruse not just their account history with Google, but one's surfing history ... [it] allows users to browse pretty much anything they've surfed on the Internet—from sites visited to downloads to search results, and also displays usage trends, showing which sites were most visited at certain times of the day. There's even a history of which Google AdSense ads the user has clicked on.

Google says that Web History data will only be available to the user signed in with his or her Google Account. The data collected is only used to "improve your search experience" and Google promises that this data will not be made available to third parties except in aggregate form or to comply with legal processes ... Still, the fact that all this information is being collected in one easy-to-access place does have some people worried—what happens if a Google account is compromised?

Google's Payam Shodjai explains:

Printed and bound together, the web pages you'll visit in just one day are probably bigger than the book sitting on your night table. Over the next month alone, that's an entire bookcase full! The idea of having access to this virtual library of information has always fascinated me. Imagine being able to search over the full text of pages you've visited online and finding that one particular quote you remember reading somewhere months ago
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If you remember seeing something online, you'll be able to find it faster and from any computer with Web History. Web History lets you look back in time, revisit the sites you've browsed, and search over the full text of pages you've seen.
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How does Web History work? All you need is a Google Account and the Google Toolbar with PageRank enabled. The Toolbar, as part of your browser, helps us associate the pages you visit with your Google Account. If you're currently a Search History user, you'll notice that we've renamed Search History to Web History to reflect this new functionality.

John Murrell adds:

The new Web History is giving some people goosebumps, but for different reasons.

On one hand, there’s the undeniable convenience of being able to retrace your steps or find that one bit of information that caught your eye in some previous wandering. It’s a neat application, with a timeline of your browsing and graphs of your surfing activity.
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On the other hand, as the price for this convenience, you are handing the complete records of your online travels over to a company that likely already knows a ton about you and has not been exactly transparent about how it uses that information ... Google’s response to such arguments comes down to a declaration that the company is not being run by idiots.

Let's hear it for the wonderfully-named Adario Strange:

I’ve been trying to avoid my natural tendency towards freaking out over privacy, but Google has finally taken me to the limit—I can’t hold back any longer ... Imagine accidentally surfing to a website you didn’t mean to (can you say “pop-ups”) and having that bit of web history coming back to bite you in some way (I won’t list the number of ways this is possible—use your imagination). Or imagine your YouTube viewing habits being used to profile you.
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If there is a feature that I could cook up that might be the Achilles heel for Google—leading to an open door for a new upstart search engine player—this new Web History feature would be it, hands down. A simple tour of Mozilla’s Firefox security features is enough to sway most new users to switch from Explorer, Safari, etc. Google Web History has “time to switch” written all over it. At the height of its power, I say this very low-key feature release is Google’s fundamental shift to the dark side, once and for all. It’s time for a new, upstart search engine to enter the game.

Self-styled attention ninja Chris Saad saaid:

As we've mentioned before, Google is collecting your Attention Data. They have been doing it for a long time. So has Amazon and others. They use it to learn about you as an individual and us as a market. Today Google has decided to expose more of that Attention Data back to you and allow you to search on it ... Well done to Google, but there are still a number of open questions.
  1. Why can't we export this data as Attention.xml and APML?
  2. Is there a way to turn this feature off while still using the Toolbar?
  3. What is the endgame of all this data collection - how is it used (both for our benefit and theirs)
  4. Are they trying to help create an Attention Economy, or are they trying to dominate it?
Ultimately though, if Google releases these sorts of features in an open and transparent way (answering each of the questions above) they could help users and the industry better understand the value of Attention Data.

Danny Sullivan digs deeper:

Is this retroactive? ... No -- only web surfing history from when you enrolled in Web History will be logged.
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Visit several pages from one site? The feature nicely consolidates them ... handy if you want to see your browsing chronologically. But if you want to see all visits to a particular site -- say for across an entire day, week or month, this doesn't seem possible.
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There may be times when you decide you don't want the pages you visit to be recorded ... use the Pause link within your Web History screen ... Recording of everything -- the searches you do, as well as the pages you visit ... stops. It won't resume until you select the Resume link ... unfortunately, there's no Pause button on the toolbar itself. That would be ideal.
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Decide there are some searches, or places you've been, that you rather not have recorded any longer? ... find the "Remove items" option ... Be aware that while deleting wipes out material from your Web History ... the data is [sic] ultimately retrievable ... a government agency could potentially legally compel Google to go to its archives and recover information that was deleted off a live system ... if you really, really don't want data recorded, don't think deleting it [sic] after the fact is enough.
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Should You Worry? With today's announcement, part of me wants to ring the alarm bell and shout "Uninstall your toolbar! Delete your Google account!" ... On the other hand, I'm a big believer in personalized search. I think this type of data can indeed improve the search experience ... I hate to single out Google just because it is big ... whatever Google gets dinged on, Yahoo and Microsoft are probably doing the same. But no one focuses on them in terms of search privacy.
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C'mon -- you want to be concerned about something, you get concerned about the fact Google has -- and is growing -- real honest-to-goodness personally identifiable profiles of individual searchers. And if you want to get concerned about that, also get concerned that Yahoo and Microsoft have similar profiling -- just not as visible to the searcher.

Slashdotter benjiew yawns:

No news here indeed. First, they have introduced their toolbar - anybody who'd think they don't collect data with it is very naive. Then there was personalized search - again it gets enabled only when you sign up. However, Google users are a vast group of people whose tech savviness varies a lot - there will likely be people who don't give it a thought. The right thing to do for Google would be to warn the users of their toolbar and personalized search about their data collection policies, how this data will be used, etc.

And gravesb agrees:

There are far worse threats to privacy than Google. Watch out for continued government laws that require ISPs of all flavors to maintain data for long periods of time, and to turn it over to law enforcement for less and less stringent requirements. If you are worried about your privacy, don't sign up for the stupid service ... If people want their privacy protected, they need to take responsibility for it. You reduce your privacy, and you get free services and make some services easier to use. Most people are ok with that ... Businesses provide services and make money. They don't take care of you. Take responsibility for yourself.

Here's nanosquid, with a perspective:

There are probably half a dozen institutions collecting this kind of data about you: your ISP, a couple of federal and state agencies, several advertising networks, etc. At least Google is open about it and you can have a look at the data.

Now let's disappear in a Puff of Logic:

I have a vision of an old decrepit geek sitting inside a tin shack fifty years from now. In the light of flickering screens that cut in and out as the pirate net connection goes in and out, he regards the semi-circle of small children who have come to hear him regale them with tales of how it used to be. "Tell us again, Grandfather, of the days when no-one was tracked on Googlenet and anyone could say anything," they cry in Los Angeles pidgin, a mix of English, Spanish, and Mandarin. The old man smiles but his eyes look haunted. "Oh children, once there was a time when the network wasn't even called Googlenet and the Watchers were just a company called Google! Back then, they had a motto: 'Do No Evil.' If only we'd known, little ones. If only we'd known what was coming and that they meant to stop anyone from doing 'evil'". The old man reaches up with a shaky hand and rubs his fingers over the scar where his Googlenet access chip was forcibly removed. Almost inaudibly, he whispers "Who knew that protesting the government was evil?"

Buffer overflow:

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And finally... Amazing Russian cakes [hat tip: b3ta]

Richi Jennings is an independent technology and marketing consultant, specializing in email, blogging, Linux, and computer security. A 20 year, cross-functional IT veteran, he is also an analyst at Ferris Research. Contact Richi at blogwatch@richi.co.uk.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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