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Google eyes
The company everyone loves knows more about you than you might realize. And that’s just for starters.

IS THERE A company anywhere within these United States with a better public image than Google has? We love it. We need it. We use it — more than 200 million times a day, by some accounts. The unofficial slogan — "Don’t Be Evil" — epitomizes everything we want in a business relationship. And more often than not, Google lives up to those words.

But there is another side to Google, and it’s one that the company would just as soon you not think about. It’s what happens each and every time you look up a piece of information. An old boyfriend. A political organization you heard mentioned on television the night before. A possible vacation spot. Or maybe you’re a student trying to track down a terrorist group’s Web site for a paper you’re writing. Or a church elder who likes to look at hard-core pornography. Or you’re seeking information on how to grow your own marijuana. Who knows?

Google knows. According to Lauren Weinstein, an Internet activist and privacy expert based in Southern California, Google keeps track of every search that’s made, as well as the Internet location of the computer from which the search is taking place — and then it stores that information for possible future use. Moreover, he says, it would not be terribly difficult to trace those searches to the person who made them. That’s you and me.

Such tracking is common on the Internet, of course. Amazon.com knows what kinds of books and music you like, and it puts those products in front of your eyeballs at every opportunity. Internet-service providers such as America Online and Microsoft’s MSN collect enormous amounts of data about their customers. Same with Yahoo!, which — with personalized services such as My Yahoo! — is also more zealous than Google about trying to get its customers to sign up and thus identify themselves.

For all anyone knows, Google is handling private information more responsibly than many other corporations are. So why single out the Internet company everyone loves? For two reasons: first, it’s so ubiquitous that it’s the only online service that virtually all of us use regularly — 10, 20, 50 times a day; and second, the famously sparse user interface exudes an aura of anonymity. You don’t have to register — you’re not even asked to register — for the basic Google services we use all the time, such as searching for Web sites, news, and pictures. At Amazon, you know you’re being watched. But you might be surprised to learn that Google is watching, too.

"Google has some wonderful products. I use it all the time. I’m as dependent on it as anyone else is. But that doesn’t change anything," says Weinstein. "The ‘Google is so neat’ kind of haze that surrounds this has blinded people into failing to think one step beyond."

WEINSTEIN, THE motorcycle-riding co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility, first publicly questioned Google’s privacy practices last month with a post on his weblog (lauren.vortex.com) titled "The Dark Side of Google." Among other things, he wrote, "Google has created a growing information repository of a sort that CIA and NSA (and the old KGB) would probably envy and covet in no uncertain terms — and Google’s data is virtually without outside oversight or regulation."

Here’s how it works, according to Weinstein. Every computer attached to the Internet has something called an "Internet protocol," or IP, address, which is a string of four numbers separated by decimal points. At work, your IP address is likely that of your company’s dedicated network; it never changes, and anyone who obtained that IP address would be able to trace it back to your workplace, if not necessarily to your desk. At home, if you’re using an Internet-service provider such as AOL or EarthLink, you have what’s known as a "dynamic" IP address — that is, your IP address changes on a fairly regular basis. Still, a Google search could be traced back to you if someone knew you were using a particular IP address at a particular time — information that Google does not have, but that your Internet provider does. Someone armed with a subpoena — say, an FBI agent who’s curious about your interest in chemical warfare, or your soon-to-be-ex spouse’s divorce lawyer — could pay a visit to your Internet provider to find out who was using what IP address when. That is exactly how the music industry has busted illegal file-sharers: investigators cruise services such as KaZaA and LimeWire looking for the IP addresses of computers on which copyrighted files are available for download. After they’ve got that information, they need only pay a visit to EarthLink or wherever to match the numbers with names.

And that’s assuming you have your Web browser’s cookies turned off. You don’t, do you? Neither do I. Cookies, which are little bits of data stored within your browser that are automatically sent to Web sites that request them, provide all kinds of information about you — information that makes it extraordinarily easy to track you down. The reason Google uses cookies is perfectly benign — it’s how the service manages to tailor advertising to your interests, thus making money while you search for free. Leaving cookies turned on improves our Web-surfing experience. Many services, including Google, warn users that their sites won’t even work properly without cookies. Only a paranoid would turn them off, right? Well — maybe not.

Perhaps none of this is particularly surprising. But Weinstein offers an additional wrinkle that ought to give anyone reason to pause: he claims Google is actually storing all this stuff so that it can go back and conduct, say, market research or develop new products. Or, you know, respond to that subpoena. This struck me as truly innovative and troublesome, so I asked Weinstein how he knows this. His response: "My source on this is a former highly placed Google person whom I have met with face to face. To protect him, I have not publicly stated his name. But I am satisfied personally, having known him for many, many years. He certainly would have been in a position to know. That’s as far as I can take that, unfortunately."

Now, it wouldn’t be fair to disparage Google on the basis of anonymous information once removed. But the thing is, the company doesn’t deny it. I sent an e-mail to Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s senior policy counsel and a person who had been described to me as the company’s privacy guru, someone who’s enlightened about such issues. But rather than respond, he forwarded my e-mail to the company’s public-relations staff. After several days of polite back-and-forth, company spokesman Steve Langdon sent me an e-mail statement that I quote in its entirety: "Privacy is an issue about which Google cares very much. In all the products we develop, we pay very close attention to how the products and their features relate to user privacy and we make design decisions and policies to protect privacy. Google also provides users with information about privacy in our privacy policies that are posted on our web site."

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Issue Date: January 21 - 27, 2005
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