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BLOG: Is Google evil? The jury is out

Ira Winkler | Feb. 2, 2012
Google's changes to its privacy policy should have been expected. It's what any corporation intent on maximizing value would do. But does that make it right?

Meanwhile, Google just keeps on growing. A few short years ago, how many people foresaw all that Google would eventually involve itself in? Not many, considering the non-reaction to my presentation at RSA. Chances are, more growth is coming. And it's a pretty good guess that every move will bring the company a little deeper into our lives.

Still, technically not evil. Google is just a very intelligently run business that is making the best legal use of the resources it has. So the question we really need to ask is, "What should be legal when it comes to the use of personal information that is freely given up to a corporation?"

My thought is that regulators and privacy professionals should rethink the concept of privacy protection. When companies are allowed to set their own privacy policies and retain the right to change them at will, do privacy policies mean anything at all? The Google case suggests that voluntary privacy policies, always subject to change, provide no protection.

And this is where my presumption that Google is not evil runs up against a big problem. Because I have to believe that Google always intended to combine the data from all of the businesses that it built or acquired. I have too much respect for the company to think otherwise. I saw the potential for this three years ago; isn't it likely that Google did as well? But there is currently nothing in the law stopping a company from getting people to offer up their personal data under one privacy policy, even though the company fully intends to change the policy and use the data for other purposes.

Now, you could argue that any company that did that had to induce people to use its services under false pretenses. And that sounds, well, evil.

In the wake of Google's policy change, eight members of Congress sent the company a list of questions about the new policy's effects on privacy. Google responded on Monday, basically saying that its approach to privacy has not changed . My expectation is that in the end Google will make some small concessions, and the lawmakers and various privacy advocates will play those up so we'll all think they're looking after our welfare. To my mind, that's not nearly good enough. If Google is really going to live up to its corporate mantra of "Don't be evil," then it should undo this latest move and support regulation that would stop other companies from making similar changes. Because, unlike lions on the savannah, a company's worst impulses can be constrained.

Ira Winkler is president of Internet Security Advisors Group and author of the book Spies Among Us. He can be contacted through his Web site, irawinkler.com .

 

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