Privacy on the internet doesn’t exist

As a follow-up to my post of four years ago, “Gmail and Privacy,” I’d like to say something about some of the reactions to Google being asked to hand over YouTube user data to Viacom by an American judge.

First of all, I don’t see that Google did anything wrong here. Viacom may have done something wrong. The judge who ruled that user viewing data could be handed over from one company to another company without user consent has done something wrong. Should this make Google rethink how much data it should store and for how long? Of course. But that’s not because of what’s wrong with their privacy policies or practices—it has everything to do with the laws and powers they are subject to.

Secondly, as evidenced in the government subpoena in 2006 of search data, Google is much better than other major search engines, since AOL, MSN, and Yahoo! readily gave up their user search data, and Google didn’t. Google isn’t always in a legal position to protect your privacy, but it will at least try.

But that’s the real problem here. Too many people are focusing on Google and getting angry about privacy issues there. The real issue here is the US government and privacy issues there. If your data is stored somewhere, and the laws are on the side of a snooping government instead of a private citizen, then you’re screwed no matter where you store your data. You could have it on a privately owned domain hosted on a private server or even on your own home mail server. If the government wants to get to your data and a judge approves that action, well, tough luck for you. Never mind that most emails are sent unencrypted anyway.

When I think about how much of my life is stored places, it’s a little scary. I check books out of the library all the time. The library has a database (which is accessible online) of all the books I’ve ever checked out. Amazon keeps track of all the books I order or even look at and don’t order. If I use a credit card at a grocery store, they know what groceries I buy, and using a grocery store frequent buyers card makes it even easier for them to track what I do.

I guess if there’s anything that makes Google dangerous in terms of privacy, it’s the fact that they store a lot of data together. The government doesn’t have to search through millions of individual homes. They can just pester one company to give up its data. Really, though, imagining that you have privacy on the internet is just delusion. Yes, there are some things you can do to limit the amount of personal information you have floating around, but ultimately we live in a digital age, and the government has the ultimate say in terms of how that data gets accessed, privacy policies be damned.

Further Reading
Privacy on the Internet Still Doesn’t Exist

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3 Comments

  1. There’s a book you might be interested in by JJ Luna, called How To Be Invisible. Wait. Have I mentioned it to you before?

    It’s basically the privacy Bible. I recommend it to everyone who has privacy concerns like yours (ours). Unfortunately, he doesn’t concern himself with technology as much as we do, and isn’t big on cryptography. We can supplement with our own knowledge though.

    “Amazon keeps track of all the books I order or even look at and don’t order.”

    I can’t reach tatteredcover.com right now (a huge privately owned bookstore) but I’ve heard their service is good, and I remember their privacy policy being very sane. Maybe it’s time to drop amazon.

  2. Well, I guess I’m not really looking for more privacy. I’m kind of saying it essentially doesn’t exist. We can minimize the degree to which it’s easily found by random people, but if the government gets involved, short of a violent revolution, there’s not much we can do to stop them from getting information about us.

    I also wanted to bring up the fact that it’s easy to point the finger at companies like Google (which hasn’t really done anything wrong in this Viacom deal, as far as I can tell) instead of pointing the finger at companies like Viacom (which has done everything wrong in this case) or the judge who sided with Viacom in this case.

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