Security

Google Book Search and our privacy

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has highlighted some privacy concerns associated with Google's Book Search service. It has also provided a quick and easy way to let Google's CEO know how we feel about those concerns.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has highlighted some privacy concerns associated with Google's Book Search service. It has also provided a quick and easy way to let Google's CEO know how we feel about those concerns.


Google has increasingly become the target of criticism from privacy advocates over the course of the last year, with the first major headline-grabber in that area being CEO Eric Schmidt's now-infamous statement about privacy:

If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.

His statement is very nearly identical to the stereotypical authoritarian defense of governments spying on their own citizens:

If you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.

With the starkly obvious similarity between these statements, it should come as no surprise that many privacy advocates have been up in arms over Schmidt's offhand comments about the nature of privacy on the Internet. Judging by the kind of stories that have increasingly dominated the news about Google since then, one might think that Schmidt's ill-conceived statement marked a change in policy that led to more and more disregard for the importance of user privacy.

Of course, it is almost certain that such an increase in the visibility of privacy concerns surrounding Google policy is actually a result of people paying more attention to the corporation's behavior, rather than of a change in Google policy. Some of us believe that Google has developed a strong culture of features first, and perhaps privacy later — as an afterthought, if at all. In short, Eric Schmidt's statement did not so much mark a change in direction for Google as shine a spotlight on the corporation's entrenched culture of forgetting to think about privacy much at all.

This kind of neglect for the issue of privacy is well illustrated by Google's approach to its Book Search service. In the words of the EFF Action Center:

Google is planning to dramatically expand its Book Search service so that millions of books will be available for browsing, reading, and purchasing online. But in designing this new service, Google is leaving reader privacy behind. Without strong privacy protections, all of your browsing and reading history may be collected, tracked, and turned over to the government or third parties without your knowledge or consent.

Google's Book Search project has grabbed headlines before, as publishing industry corporations have sought to prohibit Google from indexing the contents of works currently under copyright. Digital and intellectual freedom advocates have sided with Google against the major publishing houses in this case, for a number of reasons ranging from "copyfighting" (advocating for the abolishment of copyright laws) at one extreme to a simple, pragmatic desire to make it easier to find information at the other. Some have even suggested that allowing Google to index every book in the world can act as a form of free advertising for the books the online service provider indexes, and there is some precedent to suggest the argument may have merit.

As the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) suggests, however, privacy advocates may now have reason to oppose Google's policies with regard to its Book Search services. Typical of the Internet search giant's recent behavior, it seems that Google is once again chasing after a neat idea in a way that completely ignores any potential privacy concerns for its users. The corporation's technology development and deployment policies seem, in general, to be designed without any concern for matters of privacy, one way or another, and its Book Search service is no exception.

The EFF's Action Center announcement urges us to action by letting Google's CEO know how we feel about the organization's lack of attention to protecting our privacy in this case:

You should be able to read about anything — from politics to health — without worrying that someone is looking over your shoulder. Email Google CEO Eric Schmidt and demand that Google Book Search protect your freedom to read privately!

A link at the bottom of the announcement leads to a Web form that can be used to edit and send a message to Eric Schmidt. The version of the letter provided, if sent without any edits, lays out some of the major privacy concerns associated with providing the Book Search service without any privacy guarantees in place.

Because privacy is security, it is for our own protection that we should consider taking the opportunity provided by the EFF to send a message to Google's CEO about the importance of privacy guarantees in the use of the corporation's services.

About

Chad Perrin is an IT consultant, developer, and freelance professional writer. He holds both Microsoft and CompTIA certifications and is a graduate of two IT industry trade schools.

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