the Irish for rights

Watching Your Every Move

New York Times logo, via the NYT siteI don’t usually do this, but an Editorial in yesterday’s New York Times (13 June 2007; sub req’d) is so important, and so perfectly reflects my views, that it’s worth reproducing in full (in fact, I wish I’d written it). The headline is the title to this post: “Watching Your Every Move”, and the strapline on the electronic front page makes the point perfectly:

Privacy is too important to leave up to the companies that benefit financially from collecting and retaining data.

The Editorial itself ran as follows:

Watching Your Every Move

Internet users are abuzz over Google’s new Street View feature, which displays ground-level photos of urban blocks that in some cases even look through the windows of homes. If that feels like Big Brother, consider the reams of private information that collects on its users every day through the search terms they enter on its site.

Privacy International, a London-based group, has just given Google its lowest grade, below Yahoo and Microsoft, for ‘comprehensive consumer surveillance and entrenched hostility to privacy’,

There are welcome signs that this Wild West era of online privacy invasion could be coming to an end. Data protection chiefs from the 27 countries of the European Union sent Google a letter recently questioning the company’s policy for retaining consumer information. Here at home, the Federal Trade Commission is looking into the antitrust ramifications of Google’s $3.1 billion acquisition of DoubleClick, an online company.

The F.T.C. should also examine the privacy ramifications of the deal. And Congress needs to act on proposals to prevent the warehousing of such personal data.

Google keeps track of the words users type into its popular site, while DoubleClick tracks surfing behavior across different client Web sites. The combination could give Google an unprecedented ability to profile Web users and their preferences. That knowledge means big bucks from companies trying to target their advertisements. But it also means Google could track more sensitive information – like what diseases users have, or what political causes they support.

Google has announced that rather than keeping information indefinitely, it would only keep it for 18 months before making it anonymous. That is a good step, but not enough since it’s not clear what anonymous means. Last year AOL released records of searches by 657,000 unidentified users. Reporters from The Times were able to trace the queries back to ‘anonymous’ users.

Google is the focus of privacy advocates right now, but it is hardly the only concern. Competitors like Yahoo and Microsoft have the same set of incentives. Privacy is too important to leave up to the companies that benefit financially from collecting and retaining data. The F.T.C. should ask tough questions as it considers the DoubleClick acquisition, and Congress and the European Union need to establish clear rules on the collection and storage of personal information by all Internet companies.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Update: some more reaction in the blogoshpere to the NYT editorial here, here (see also his previous post on this issue here) and here.

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5 Responses to “Watching Your Every Move”

  1. What I want to know is did they get model release forms from everyone recognisable in those photos. Google maps is definitely a commercial venture. I’m surprised nobody has made a fuss about this.

  2. Eoin says:

    Thanks for the comment Donncha. I don’t agree that there hasn’t been a fuss. I’ve commented briefly here, and a quick look on technorati (and, yes, on google and google blog search) has found the following good comments even in the last few days(among literally hundreds of others in the last few weeks, many of which will no doubt be equally as good): this is an early a Boing Boing post that caused a lot of traffic; and there are links to relevant Diggs here and here; and these posts have something to say: Google’s Street View and Privacy (Concurring Opinions); Google Maps Street View (privacy.net.au); EFF Privacy Advocate Sighted in Google Street View (Wired Blogs); New Google Maps ‘Street View’ Causes Ruckus (Geek Sugar); Privacy and Google Maps Street View – Don’t be Evil? (The Politic.com); Google-ed (Vanilla Monkey); Google Street View is Cool, Creepy and Coming to Your Town (Nerdgrind). So, three strikes against Google in as many weeks: not merely this, but also the Article 27 Working Party report and the Privacy International report.

  3. Eoin says:

    And, for the sake of completeness, some other interesting posts about the other Google privacy issues that I found when looking for those in the above comment: Privacy is Dead: Google, AT&T (Webomatica); Google This. Who’s the worst invader of privacy? (Make Money Online); Google Privacy wrangles on the rise (Cloud Trance); Google Fails Privacy Study, Criticizes Watchdog Group (Wired Blogs).

    Finally, a typical Lillian Edwards post: Google Pot Shots (PanGloss).

  4. Joyce says:

    We not only need privacy and safety for our children. But If Adults do not have the privacy online how can our children ?

  5. Rom says:

    Looks like it’s time for many of us to take control over our own privacy. Although there are free tools of course (http://www.anonymity.ws) maybe privacy is something we should start to pay for…

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Me in a hatHi there! Thanks for dropping by. I'm Eoin O'Dell, and this is my blog: Cearta.ie - the Irish for rights.

"Cearta" really is the Irish word for rights, so the title provides a good sense of the scope of this blog.

In general, I write here about private law, free speech, and cyber law; and, in particular, I write about Irish law and education policy.

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