Thursday, December 17, 2009

Google CEO's Anti-Privacy Remarks and the Delay of Goggles Application

It feels like - once all my posts on the company are combined - I've written nearly a book on Google and its continuing oppositional stance to privacy advocates concerns. Rather than rehash all of them in detail, let me go to a recent synopsis of the company's ever expanding technological empire and the rather confrontational relationship its had with privacy in order to add some perspective to the latest "privacy snafu" coming from CEO Steve Schmidt himself (as well as the company's latest "coming attraction"):

I've written about the approaching launch of Google Books just around the corner in which the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Samuelson Clinic have even launched a Google Book Search privacy campaign to address. I've written about the loss of "Locational Privacy" and how a host of Google products relate to that growing privacy protection challenge. And I've posted a lot about other examples demonstrating Google's less than stellar record on privacy in the past, from their lobbying efforts in Congress, to cloud computing, and to its increasing usage and expansion of behavioral marketing techniques.

Before I get to the privacy concerns that have forced Google to delay an expansion of its Goggles service - which would have enabled camera-phone users to identify strangers on the street through a kind of biometrics based identification technology - let me quote the company's CEO from a recent appearance on CNBC:

"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

Before you let that sink in, he also said this:

"But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time, and it's important, for example that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities."

Now, it takes a lot to truly surprise or shock me anymore, but for the CEO of the pre-eminent global leader in information technology to come straight out and say this caught me even me off guard. Where does one even begin when answering this kind of mindless "If you haven't done anything wrong you have nothing to worry about" mantra?

People that subscribe to this kind of thinking must have never A. read the Constitution, or B. read anything about history and abuses of power, or C. simply don't have any sense of privacy as a right, not a privilege.

I'm not going to go into a diatribe today on this topic, because seriously, a book could be written. But let me quote two privacy advocates that sum Schmidt's statement up perfectly.

First, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Richard Esguerra wrote:

Schmidt's statement makes it seem as if not even concerned enough to understand basic lessons about privacy and why it's important...Schmidt's statement is painfully similar to the tired adage of pro-surveillance advocates that incorrectly presume that privacy's only function is to obscure lawbreaking...[There's an] error in logic that leads to short-sighted conceptions of privacy like Schmidt's...Google, governments, and technologists need to understand more broadly that ignoring privacy protections in the innovations we incorporate into our lives not only invites invasions of our personal space and comfort, but opens the door to future abuses of power.

And privacy expert Bruce Schneier once wrote:

Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we're doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance...Privacy is a basic human need. Too many wrongly characterize the debate as "security versus privacy." The real choice is liberty versus control. Tyranny, whether it arises under threat of foreign physical attack or under constant domestic authoritative scrutiny, is still tyranny. Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that's why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide."

That's about as good as anyone I've read make this very fundamental case for civil liberties and privacy. On the bright side, we can all applaud Aza Dotlzer, Mozilla's Director of Community Development, for posting on a Mozilla veteran's personal Web page how users can easily switch Firefox's search engine from Google to bing and why he recommends them doing so.

So putting Steve Schmidt's rather frightening, Orwellian even, view of privacy behind us, let's look at the company's latest product that's coming around the pike - but has been temporarily delayed due to...wait for it...privacy concerns of course!

I speak of the experimental Google Goggles application - which was launched last week - that allows smart-phone users to search for subjects simply by snapping a picture of them. Users can focus their phone's camera on an object and Google will try to match portions of the picture with the tens of millions of images in its database.

The delay, as you might have guessed, centers on privacy advocates fears regarding the ' facial recognition' potential of the service, which would allow users to track strangers through a photograph.

The UK's Daily Mail reports:

Google, which has confirmed the technology is available but has yet to decide if it will be rolled-out as part of Goggles, has now confirmed that it is blocking aspects of the application until privacy implications have been fully explored.

Google spokesman Anthony House said: 'We do have the relevant facial recognition technology at our disposal. For instance with our Picasa picture service a user can tag a friend in their photo album and it will search for and tag any other pictures of that person. 'But we haven't implemented this on Google Goggles because we want to consider the privacy implications and how this feature might be added responsibly...We will have talks with privacy advocates and consumers before we consider any changes - it may be people want such a service, but we don't have a rigid timescale on when any decisions will be made.'

Click here to read more.

I'm not going to lie, a product that scan faces and tell you who that person is, on its face creeps me out. In many ways this would be a stalker or muggers dream come true. I don't want to go overboard by jumping to any conclusions before I know more, but I think on an almost instinctive and intuitive level, a lot of people will view this as an invasion of privacy and even a potential threat to their safety.

There's plenty of ways to tag your friends in photos without the ability or need to identity random strangers in the street. Social networks like Facebook are meant to share photos and information with people you know, and at least ideally, with them having some say in the matter. This strikes me as going potentially far beyond that. More to come...

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