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Google eyes (continued)

That’s true. The most relevant part of that policy would appear to be this: "Google collects limited non-personally identifying information your browser makes available whenever you visit a website. This log information includes your Internet Protocol address, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your query and one or more cookies that may uniquely identify your browser. We use this information to operate, develop and improve our services." But claiming that your IP address and cookies are "non-personally identifying information" is, at best, a gross underestimate about what a skilled investigator could do with it.

"When you amalgamate all the results of this sort of tracking, especially if you’ve got a dedicated IP address where people can zero in on a specific household, a remarkably clear picture of who you are and what you think and what you believe" can be assembled, says Steven Rambam, a private investigator based in New York who uses online databases for much of his work. "Everything that you’re interested in and everything that your daily life is focused on can be recorded and tracked back to a particular machine." (And, as we’ve seen, even a dynamic IP address is no protection if your Internet-service provider can be compelled to turn over its records.)

Last July, for NPR’s On the Media program, Rambam demonstrated how easy it is. Within 10 minutes, he had found co-host Brooke Gladstone’s Social Security number, previous addresses, how much she’d paid for her current house, even the name of her sister. Rambam told me that he supports the idea of public information being publicly available. (One fun fact he dug up last year: liberal activist Michael Moore was registered to vote in two states, Michigan and New York. That information made its way to TheSmokingGun.com, a cornucopia of entertaining invasions of privacy.) "Frankly, I think the average person has a right to see if their nanny used to be child molester, if their tenant stiffed the previous three landlords," Rambam says. "There has to be an intelligent balance, and, frankly, I think that’s where we’re at right now."

By contrast, Rambam explains, the trouble with data collection by commercial services is that customers haven’t really consented to it. "My bugaboo," he says, "is that it needs to be consensual and not sneaky." (The Google privacy policy is not hard to find, but it’s long and doesn’t exactly make for gripping reading. Have you read it? Of course you haven’t. I have — but I hadn’t until recently, and then only for the purposes of researching this article. Nor have I read the privacy policies of other services that I use.)

Gladstone, who was on the receiving end of Rambam’s investigative efforts, told me that she felt "a kind of generalized queasiness, a kind of tightening in the pit of my stomach" to see how easy it was to dig up personal information about her. She adds, "I suppose you could go off the grid, but that’s just not the way most of us want to live. I like my credit card, I like having a cell phone, I like participating in the financial institutions to the extent that I have a mortgage. I like to partake of the fruits of our democracy. But now it’s all so easy. It isn’t that a lot of these records weren’t public before. It’s just that it’s instant and it’s global."

And that’s exactly it. You don’t want to be bothered to protect your identity. Life without privacy is seductive — first because you don’t necessarily realize how compromised your privacy has become, but second because it’s nice to visit Amazon.com and get those book recommendations tailored to your interests. It’s great to log on to AOL and see the weather forecast for your small part of the world. It’s helpful to be shown custom-delivered advertising when you search on Google.

"The dark side of Google is actually part of the light side," says Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in San Francisco. "All of these companies are trying to move toward trying to personalize your Internet experience and make it a better Internet experience. But that means collecting and studying an enormous amount of information about you. In many cases, consumers are willing to make that trade-off."

In other words, Orwell was wrong. Huxley was right. We’re not losing our privacy because the forces of evil and oppression are taking it away from us. We’re losing it because we’re giving it away, whether we know it or not. What we’re getting in return is stuff, convenience, information, an easier way of life. And we like it.

SEVERAL YEARS ago, a computer-privacy expert named Latanya Sweeney tracked down confidential information about former Massachusetts governor William Weld’s health from a database of state-employee insurance claims that was supposed to be anonymous. She knew he lived in Cambridge. With that as a starting point, she obtained publicly available voter-registration records, and then used those to make the match. Other electronic alchemy was involved, too, obviously, but the point is that she had no problem doing it. "Only six people had his birth date, only three were men, and he was the only one in his five-digit zip code," Sweeney told Newsweek in October 2000.

Sweeney, who is now director of the Laboratory for International Data Privacy, at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, did not respond to e-mails or a phone call seeking comment. (However, she has posted some very cool photos of herself on her motorcycle at privacy.cs.cmu.edu/people/sweeney. What is it about privacy activists and motorcycles?) You’ll find some pretty creepy things linked from her Web site, too. Like CameraWatch, a compilation of webcams at universities, cities, beaches, even jails. The other day I sat transfixed, manipulating a camera by long-distance as a student walked across one of the campus quads at George Washington University. Did she even have a clue that she was being watched?

According to Sweeney’s Web site, there are an estimated 10,000 such cameras in public places across the US. Cameras are catching traffic violators — and, reportedly, occasionally causing accidents, with drivers slamming on the brakes so as to avoid a roboticket. And it’s not all government and big business, not by any means. Spyware has invaded our computers, watching what we’re doing and reporting back to sleazoids unknown, or surreptitiously turning our computers into untraceable propagation machines for e-mail spam and illegal file-sharing. Combined with the data-collection activities of Google, AOL, Amazon, Yahoo!, et al., it can seem as though we have already crossed the threshold into a perpetual state of surveillance.

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Issue Date: January 21 - 27, 2005
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