Back in 2012, someone posted a question to the IT Security StackExchange site under the title: Is Google Spying On Us All? It contained exactly the sort of uninformed techno-panic that you’d expect from a question with that title. I normally just ignore this type of bait, but I had some time to kill and something to say.
The response below is based on my original answer to that question.
What Sort of Spying?
Advertisers use what information they have to guess what ads you will want to see. In Google’s case, your search history is the best indicator they have, but ad clicks and ad impressions are also considered. In Amazon’s case your purchase and product browsing history is their best indicator, and you’ll probably notice that their suggestions closely mirror your recent history.
My own search and browsing habits tend to favor highly technical content; servers, programming, malware, etc. The ads I see when browsing under that profile therefore tend to also favor technical content: colocation, hosting, software, etc. This is totally Fine By Me™.
When I watch TV, I have to endure a depressing amount of ads about feminine incontinence, retirement homes, and herpes medication. But on the Internet, the ads are all software and servers. Do I think that’s creepy? Hell no. The fewer herpes ads the better, in my opinion.
Control Your Privacy
To be clear: I’m a strong proponent of online privacy. However, I manage my online privacy by controlling the information I make available online. I don’t expect others to maintain my privacy for me; the concept doesn’t even make sense. If you don’t want them to know something, then don’t tell them.
Telling someone your secrets and then demanding that they forget is a recipe for disaster on numerous fronts. From a security standpoint even the idea is absolutely absurd. Privacy is something you create, not something you demand.
If I don’t want a search associated with me, I use a private browsing session. Sure, I could use a service that promises to not remember what I tell them, but I would be an idiot if I were to depend on that promise. Remember Hushmail? Still, I actually prefer to use a service that allows me to craft my own online preference profile so that they can filter out all the crap I clearly don’t want.
Is what Google does Legal?
So far yes. I would hope that it remains so, since the unintended consequences of adding related legislation would be so far reaching and unexpected that it would have devastating consequences for completely innocent Internet users and site operators. Internet regulation reliably makes things worse. So far we have yet to see a counter-example.
Does Google’s Policy Bother Me?
Of course not. If I buy an apple from a market, is it creepy for the vendor to ask me the next day whether I liked my apple? Do I think he’s spying on me? If I tell him I liked it, is it creepy for him to suggest that I buy more apples at a subsequent visit? No, of course not. It’s just good customer service.
If he tells the fruit vendor next door that he thinks I like apples, should that be illegal? Of course not: It’s his information to give, just like any conclusions I make about him are my information to share as I see fit.
Vendors online remember what we tell them just like vendors at your local market. My fruit vendor may remember that I visited his store even though I didn’t buy anything, and yet I don’t assume that he’s spying on me. I’m visiting him, not the other way around. Likewise, when I visit Google, I don’t think it’s spying for them to remember what I ask them.
Private By Association
The biggest problem with online privacy is the implicit and unstated belief that because I connect to the Internet from the privacy of my own home, anything I do on the Internet also happens in the privacy of my own home. This is lunacy. Everything you do on the Internet is absolutely public unless you can verifiably prove otherwise (which you can’t, by the way).
I’m sure you mother once told you to never put in writing anything that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper. It’s old advice that is just as relevant today as ever, and it most certainly applies to email, text messages, Twitter, Facebook, and anywhere else you can state your opinion.
But the same principle applies to your behavior. Everything you do on the Internet is communicated to parties unknown, parties with whom you have absolutely no logical reason to trust your secrets. Even in the privacy of your own home, online activity is public: all of it, always — unless you can prove otherwise.
Privacy must start and end with you. That’s why it’s called privacy.
Yes, you do have privacy. Privacy is not dead, nor is it in danger. But you have to make it yourself, as you always have. By exercising discretion, by watching what you say and what you do, you create your own privacy. If you expect others to do it for you then the extent of your privacy is limited only to the details that no one else finds interesting.