Google: Creating a World Without Privacy

Two important court decisions, and a pair of inadvertently disclosed documents, have conspired to cause Google some privacy-related heartburn recently.

But when I was challenged this past week by a fan of Google, I was forced to rethink whether the mounting privacy problems for the Mountain View, Calif.-based search engine giant are really as bad as I first thought.

The more I pondered it, the more I realized that what's bad for privacy may actually be good for Google -- provided that you accept a controversial premise: Google's real mission is to destroy privacy.

Over the last couple of weeks, privacy problems have repeatedly bitten Google. Most notably, two different court hearings last week resulted in the prospect of Google being forced to turn over search records and private emails to government investigators.

The first case was a battle between the Bush Administration and Google over a government subpoena requesting several weeks' worth of consumer search records allegedly needed to support the government's attempt to prove the Internet is filled with porn. The judge has just announced that Google will indeed be forced to turn over some amount of data, but not the massive volumes first requested.

The second case stemmed from a fraud prosecution brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against the credit counseling firm AmeriDebt. In trying to uncover the whereabouts of more than $300 million in ill-gotten gains, a court has ordered Google to turn over the contents of one suspect's Gmail in-box, including all of the backup files, which Google's privacy policy says may contain even deleted emails in perpetuity.

For Google, these cases came on top of two high-profile ''oopsies'' last week.

In both instances, Google mistakenly released sensitive internal documents onto the Internet. One document, containing negative financial data, caused a significant stock price drop. The second document revealed previously unknown plans for offering a new online data storage service. I hope it's a service that has better privacy and security features than its current system.

These problems are embarrassing and troubling additions to Google's mounting privacy problems, right?

Well, according to one of my critics, it's nothing to be alarmed about -- just so long as you're someone who ''gets it'' -- which apparently I'm not.

As regular readers may have noticed, Google's business practices are a frequent topic in my columns for eSecurityPlanet, primarily because the company provides a steady stream of examples -- both positive and negative -- of privacy-related issues that face modern Internet ventures.

Whether writing here, on my blog at, or in commenting to the news media, any time I am critical of Google I can count on a flurry of angry responses from Google supporters.

Case in point: Following my recent appearance on a radio program, in which I discussed the widely reported privacy and security issues in the latest version of the Google Desktop software, I got an email from someone calling himself 'Mike R'.

According to Mike, I ''just don't understand Google.''

''[Google's products] are transcending today's ideas of search and personalized services,'' Mike says. ''[Complaining] about out-dated notions of privacy shows you just don't get it.''

Never one to cling to out-moded ways of thinking, I took Mike's message to heart and set myself to the task of thinking up ways in which Google's 'problems' could be interpreted as good news, perhaps even indicators of success and progress.

After much thought and research, which included re-reading the Bizarro issues of the Superman comic, I had a revelation.

In the Bizarro story, the sinister genius Lex Luthor uses a 'duplication ray' to create evil copies of Superman, Lois Lane, and others. The evil duplicates ultimately move to ''Htrae'' -- which is Earth spelled backwards - where they can live evilly ever after.

While considering the concept of an anti-Earth populated by anti-Superheroes, it hit me: Maybe Google is the Anti-Privacy!

Suddenly, all of Google's bad news made sense! If you assume that Google's reason for existence is to be the antithesis of privacy, then privacy disasters are not only expected and anticipated, they actually become milestones of success.

But could Google really be the embodiment of anti-privacy? A quick check of the company's website suggests this may in fact be their intent.

According to the company's mission statement, ''Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.''

This bold statement has no qualifiers. They aren't limiting themselves to the information that only people want organized and accessible, nor do they suggest limiting accessibility to anything that somebody shouldn't really be accessing.

Granted, the best corporate mission statements are audacious and uncompromising, leaving the caveats and clarifications to other documents. But if you take Google's statement at face value, the constant privacy-related problems, and the company's apparent inability to foresee -- much less prevent -- those problems, begins to make a lot more sense.

Note also that the Google's oft-stated motto of ''Don't be evil'' appears nowhere in the mission statement. This may be a simple omission, or it may be something more significant: the company doesn't see its destruction of privacy as evil.

When you accept the premise that Google's reason for being is to break down privacy, to pull that which was hidden into plain view, to take every shred of information and lay it bare for the world to ogle, whether it's something you want it ogled or not, 'problems' indeed are transformed into 'progress'.

If my thesis is correct, then privacy isn't Google's problem. Public relations is the problem.

The real challenge facing Google isn't to gloss over the destruction of privacy. Instead, company executives need to set about disabusing the world of quaint old notions about privacy. Everyone needs to see a privacy-free world as a utopia where the horror of obscurity is unknown.

The challenge for Google is to adequately prepare its customers for the world it envisions and sell them on the virtues of the new way of living, in which the only way to be private is to disconnect oneself from the modern world.

Several years ago, Sun Microsystems' CEO Scott McNeely famously announced, ''You have no privacy. Get over it!'' While many observers were aghast, apparently Google's founders saw a business model.

So instead of complaining about out-moded concepts of privacy, perhaps I should join in the effort to educate Google's customers. Perhaps then all the other nay-sayers will stop being shocked and appalled at each new privacy problem du jour.

Then we can all sit back and enjoy our new privacy-free existence -- brought to you by Google.