Don't blame Google, we haven't had privacy for years - Stuff

Don’t blame Google, we haven’t had privacy for years

Don’t blame Google, we haven’t had privacy for years

We all might as well admit it, we have no privacy anymore.

Well, certainly not the outdated sense of privacy from last week.

This week, the latest privacy storm hit the internet when Google’s long-announced plan to consolidate its 60 separate privacy policies into one, as part of a new “single sign-on” plan for all its various services, These include YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps and Docs.

This comes a week after it was revealed that Google has been circumventing the privacy settings in Apple’s iPhone browser, called Safari, and in the same month a number of smartphone apps uncovered for accessing users’ contacts and photos.

Privacy as we understand it is, frankly, becoming extinct. The slow erosion of personal information protection began long before this latest round of controversy; long before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously said in 2010 that privacy was no longer a “social norm”. Google stopped talking to new site Cnet for a year after it used Google’s search tools to find publically available information about its two founders.

Meanwhile, every change to Facebook’s privacy policies results in a spate of user complaints and uproars, followed (sometimes) by a retraction, then repeated again a few months later. We’re frogs in the slowly heating pot, getting used to each shift in the temperature.

This week, Google has been on the defensive – after the policy change took effect on Thursday, March 1 – much like it has over other privacy blunders, including the launch of its ill-fated Buzz competitor to Twitter or Facebook.

But the problem has been brewing for a long time. And, like it or not, its our fault: we all want something for free. The sad reality of the world is that there is no free lunch. Somebody is always paying for it, somehow.

The internet we live in now gives us most of the services we can’t live without – free email, social networks and picture-sharing sites, etc – but somebody has to pay the bills. Those bills are the acres of servers, the millions of dollars in software to run them and air-conditioning bills to cool them.

The internet economy – excluding the e-commerce component that powers Amazon and other internet retailers – is made up principally of one thing: advertising. Hundreds of millions of adverts are displayed everyday, every hour, to people searching on Google or Bing, using Gmail or Hotmail, Facebook or playing Words With Friends; or reading news on websites or shopping for shoes.

Facebook revealed in its stock market listing paperwork, which will value it at a whopping R100-billion, that it makes 85% of its revenue from advertising.

Those free services we all love so much have a price: our personal details.

The reason Google, or the myriad of other companies that track our web activity, needs these details is to show us more personalised advertising. The more they know about a web surfer, the more specific they can be. This includes basic demographic information such as your age, income bracket, where you live or shop, and the like.

There is no one single internet anymore, where the same information is shown to all comers. We live in a highly sophisticated world of customisation. Based on your search history, Google “personalises” your news search, for instance, with things it knows you are more interested in, such as cars you’ve searched for a particular brand of shoes.

“There’s no need for people to worry,” Anthony House, Google’s spokesperson for privacy issues in Europe, Middle East and Africa, told Business Times.

“We’re making our policies simpler to understand and we’re making our products behave more consistently. We’re still protecting people’s personal information: we’re not collecting any extra information, we’re not changing anyone’s settings, we’re not making any private information public, and (as always) we won’t be selling people’s info to advertisers or other third parties.”

He added: “We use it to make your searches more relevant to you.”

Frankly, most of my search history is benign information. I’m amazed anyone would even care – considering most of it is news-related.

But Google isn’t the only agency trying. The Atlantic highlighted this week how many companies are involved in tracking user behaviour. (Read it here: j.mp/z4fPrQ)

The average person on a social network reveals much more information about themselves than they realise. Turn on geolocation on your Facebook or Twitter updates and your position alone reveals a host of information that can aid targeting ads.

People give up their personal information with a  wanton ease to websites and on social networks – the digital equivalent of telling a stranger you meet in the street where you live, what car you drive, what brand of coffee you prefer and how often you eat takeaways, and which company. That is infinitely much more revealing than your search history.

Source: Time Live

Previously the editor of PCFormat and T3, Nic is a wordsmith by day and a web developer by night. Or is that the other way round? He has been the managing editor of Stuff's print version for several years and is now the digital publisher, leading the web, mobile and app evolution of your favourite mag.

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