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FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR

This is how privacy dies: to thunderous applause

Back when Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith came out, it was popular to compare the villains with the Bush administration. But now I see Google fitting better as Senator Amidala’s opponents, when now the firm’s supporters cheer as Eric Schmidt refuses even to consider the option of not storing your personal data. Says Fortune at CNN:

In one of the sharper exchanges of the afternoon, a questioner challenged Schmidt with the fact that Google is collecting a staggering amount of information about who we are, what we’re thinking, and even where we are. “All this information that you have about us: where does it go? Who has access to that?” (Google servers and Google employees, under careful rules, Schmidt said.) “Does that scare everyone in this room?” The questioner asked, to applause. “Would you prefer someone else?” Schmidt shot back – to laughter and even greater applause. “Is there a government that you would prefer to be in charge of this?” It was quite the effective moment that showed we still trust government less than we trust Google. But should we trust either?

It doesn’t even cross their minds that we might ask Google not to build the database to begin with, because it’s a basic law of databases that they can always be put to another purpose.

It’s a long forgotten incident, but this concept of re-purposing databases was illustrated during the Clinton administration. As part of the small intrusions into your private life that President Clinton ran on, attacking “deadbeat dads” was something that he and Attorney General Janet Reno spoke of often. The result was a national database of “deadbeat dads,” but before the end of the Clinton administration, the database was already to be reused to track those who owe money for other reasons. Said Wired in 1999:

The measure would require the Department of Health and Human Services to use a national list of current public and private-sector employees to track people suspected of cheating the government out of money.

You got it: That was the “deadbeat dad” database, which once built had no idea it was meant to be used only for “deadbeat dads,” and so became a tool for more and more expansive intrusion. And guess what? The same is true of any Google database. What is to stop Google, a business partner, or the government from using it later? Good will? Internal corporate safeguards? The request to “Don’t be evil?” What is to stop the government from passing a law which grants access to the database?

The only true way to respect us and our privacy is for Google not to build that database to begin with. But we know why they do it anyway: the love of money. Also from Fortune:

“Advertising that is more targeted is worth more money. … Eventually, the revenue in the digital world should be higher.”

Not just higher than it is now, but higher than it was in the analog world, Schmidt said. For newspapers, magazines and broadcasters who are watching revenues drop in their legacy businesses, this sounds like wishful thinking. But the Google chief maintained that because digital advertising should allow marketers to tailor their message to the audience, it will be more effective and brands will spend more money. He didn’t say how much of that money Google would pocket, and how much would be left for content creators.

Google expects to make too much money off of breaching your privacy for the firm to stop doing it. All the high minded talk goes away as soon as it comes time to keep growing as a business. It’s time all Americans stopped pretending that “Don’t be evil” actually means anything, and started looking closely at every single element of policy the firm promotes, starting with Net Neutrality, examining for ways that the corporation will gain at our expense.

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