Google's Lesson in Hypocrisy

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On the news this past week, I heard a law enforcement officer saying of some recently captured fugitives, ''You can run, but you can't hide.''

That may be true in a lot of cases, but it doesn't seem to have been true the other week. That's when the world learned that, when it comes to hard questions about privacy, Google's corporate policy is exactly the opposite of the officer's motto -- run and hide.

In some sense, that lawman's admonishment would make a good motto for the designers of Google's massive and ubiquitous Internet indexing.

Google takes great pride in its corporate mission, which is ''to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful''. In meeting that mission, the company has built what has become the world's most popular search engine, powered by a huge index of Websites.

However, for privacy and security experts, Google's mission statement is the stuff of nightmares.

The privacy implications of indexing every scrap of information you can find and making it keyword searchable raises many thorny questions -- questions that many experts have long been asking difficult questions about.

But whenever Google is questioned about these issues, the company's standard response has been that they're merely organizing information that is already publicly available, so worrying about these questions is not their responsibility. They also point to their corporate Privacy Policy, which promises to keep your information protected. The problem is the policy actually is pretty vague about your ability to control what information about you appears in Google's databases.

As one of those privacy experts who regularly gives Google grief over many issues, the wide reach of their Internet search capabilities is one that I really have never had much trouble with. Yes, the privacy issues are significant. But given the nature of the search engine business, and the other legal and technical recourses available to aggrieved parties, I see the privacy impacts of Google's indexing as largely an unfortunate by-product of an otherwise indispensable service.

So you can imagine my surprise when I learned last week that Google has amended its position on the privacy implications of its searches.

Their new stance? If their search engine turns up too much of your private information, it's still not their responsibility, unless you happen to be the CEO of Google. In that case, anyone who looks up the CEO's personal information is a despicable abuser of privacy who won't get their phone calls returned for an entire year!

Google's object lesson in hypocrisy began last month when a reporter for the technology news Website CNET wrote a story summarizing the many privacy questions posed by Google's existing and new businesses. The article discussed the privacy and security implications of the company's massive data gathering methods and the risks posed by hackers, corrupt employees, or overzealous investigators, who will undoubtedly try to get their grubby hands on that data.

To illustrate a central point of the article, the writer did a little ''Googling'' about Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, and reported a few benign facts that she found. Those included his estimated net worth, his wife's name, what town he lives in, and various other innocuous personal news items culled by Google's own search engine from blogs, news articles, and gossip columns.

Now that the privacy-invading power of Google's search engine was being turned on its own leader, company officials were suddenly horrified. No, they weren't horrified by how easily the reporter found the information. Rather, they were aghast that the reporter had the impudence to actually tell readers what she'd found.

Not content to be hoisted by their own petard, Google executives then decided to make a true spectacle and promptly set their hair on fire.

According to a variety of news reports, soon after the CNET article appeared, a Google public relations person called to complain to an editor about this outrageous abuse of Schmidt's privacy. The editor was, not surprisingly, astounded by the hypocrisy of Google's tantrum. He reportedly pointed out that all of the information was publicly available and was indeed found using Google's own search engine.

The executives at Google didn't like having their own namby-pamby excuses thrown back in their faces, so Google's PR flack soon called back to say the company had decided to ban its employees from talking to any CNET reporter for a period of one year.

Let there be no mistake, this wasn't Google simply acting out in childish fashion against one reporter or one news outlet. Google was putting the rest of the media on notice that if any other reporters had the temerity to point out the emperor had no clothes, they too could expect the silent treatment.

Thankfully, while today's political reporters seem to be afflicted with chronic spinelessness, reporters covering the high-tech beat have clearly been taking their calcium tablets. Laughing at the threat of the silent treatment, news outlets were soon teeming with stories about Google's arrogance, hypocrisy, and their fumbling attempts at grade-school bullying tactics.

The deep irony of this story is certainly embarrassing, or entertaining, depending on your perspective. But the more important story is that, even after its hissy-fit, Google still doesn't have a compelling, or even coherent, answer to the privacy questions raised in that or any subsequent article.

Rather than explain the gaping holes in their privacy policy, and how they're addressing the security risks of sitting on such a huge mound of data, Google executives would rather blackball the reporter and the news outlet. Yes, it's within their rights to do. But the dangers facing Google are looming larger, not going away.

Google's snit certainly doesn't reflect well on the way the youthful company -- which in the eyes of many analysts still can do no wrong -- can be expected to handle future adversity.

What's increasingly clear to me, however, is that as long a Google's strategy on privacy issues is akin to the child who plugs his ears and sings, 'La-la-la-la, I-can't-hear-you!', it is only a matter of time before Google suffers a privacy train wreck.

And based on the ugliness of last week's conniption, when ''the big one'' hits Google, it won't be pretty.


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