Sergey Brin & Google’s privacy dilemma

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, wrote that his comments about internet freedom made to The Guardian Newspaper needed some clarification. He begins by re-stating his original premise: “I believe the internet has been one of the greatest forces for good in the world over the past quarter century.”

He then goes on to say:

“Today, the primary threat by far to internet freedom is government filtering of political dissent. This has been far more effective than I ever imagined possible across a number of nations.”

How I see it

The problem with the internet is that the same methods that a company like Google uses to monitor its users for clues about what they might purchase next (so it can show relevant ads) can just as easily be used by governments to monitor their citizens for political and oppressive purposes.

“Big brother” is already here, it’s just masquerading as “big sales assistant.”

The dilemma Google faces is that every bit of progress the company makes in improving the efficiency of the commercial internet, and thereby improving its profits, unavoidably improves the potential efficiency of governments to exploit those advances for potentially harmful purposes. The technologies and methodologies are both identical as a process.

Governments can simply buy data “off-the-shelf” from Google and other companies, and instead of using it for commercial reasons such as selling diapers, use it to uncover and track networks of political dissent.

Even easier, governments can force Google to give it data by court order or passage of laws.

Privacy in anonymity

But there are solutions that would greatly hamper any government’s ability to force Google, or other internet companies, to provide them with data. The data could be “laundered” and anonymised to a far greater degree than is currently done.

Anonymised data still has commercial value, companies don’t need to know “Joe Smith” — the name means nothing, it’s user behavior that counts, and they could still sell Smith a new TV without knowing his name. Governments need names in order to persecute and prosecute dissidents.

While it is theoretically possible to de-anonymise a dataset by cross-mapping against other datasets — it’s not a trivial problem and it would certainly limit what an oppressive government could do.

Yet, despite his concern about people’s freedom and the government monitoring of internet users, which Brin describes as “dangerous,” Google has made itself into a one-stop data warehouse, housing the single largest collection of identifiable data about nearly every internet user that ever lived. Why subpoena 50 companies when one will do?

Google has become the single largest potential storehouse of data about political dissent yet it has done little to make sure that data can’t be used for harmful purposes.

It’s paradoxical that the US government has fined Google several times for collecting private data when it’s precisely that type of data that would be useful to an oppressive government.

There are other inconsistencies in what it says and does. Google found a way around South Korea’s law that mandates internet companies collect the real names of users posting comments. Google did this because of concerns about the safety of it’s South Korean users.

Yet Google insists people use real names for its G+ service, and it has aggregated previously fragmented user data by implementing a unified privacy policy.

How does Brin explain the huge contradiction in his public warnings and Google’s actions in pursuit of its business objectives?

One possible explanation is that there is a deep split on such issues within Google, as there was over its China business. Brin was firmly against Google’s move into China, on which he eventually prevailed, resulting in a retreat from the search market in that country.

Maybe Brin doesn’t speak for Google, but for himself? In which case his public hand wringing is worth little compared with what he could do within the company. He could harness Google’s army of braniacs to develop new online technologies that could thwart government abuses while at the same time improve commercial applications.

There’s lots Google could do that would protect all internet users from being harmed by dangerous elements within any government, or any other organised group.

“Do no evil” is a wonderful motto but it’s meaningless if Google allows others to use it for evil.



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