Is Google Too Big?
Tuesday, June 19, 2007; 4:32 AM
From search to e-mail, from calendars to spreadsheets and text documents, more and more of what PC users read and create flows through one firm: Google.
Google's pending purchase of online advertising giant DoubleClick (the deal awaited Federal Trade Commission approval as we went to press) will give it access to yet more information: the Web browsing histories collected by millions of DoubleClick cookies. Combine that data with what Google already knows through its homegrown services--Google Apps, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google Desktop, and many others--and the company has the potential to know more about you than any one entity ever has. (See the chart, " What Google Knows About You.")
The question is, can you trust Google with all that information about you? And even if you trust Google, what about other groups that may try to access all that information--government agencies, hackers, and rival businesses, to name a few? Privacy and security experts say that the risk is significant, even if Google sticks to its famous "Don't Be Evil" motto.
According to Harvard Business School assistant professor and researcher Ben Edelman, companies face many risks when they use online software services such as Google's, namely loss of privacy, lack of physical data security, and lack of control over data retention. Who can access your Google-hosted data, and when, and under what circumstances? Google itself has full access to your files, which are unencrypted. In fact, searching and indexing stored data are essential if Google is to continue serving its contextual advertising.
Should Google receive approval for its acquisition of DoubleClick, it could become the single largest custodian of Internet user search and browsing histories, with few legal restrictions on using that data or sharing it with third parties. The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the FTC, which must approve the deal, asking it to investigate the ability of Google to record and profile the activities of Internet users, whether they are personally identifiable or not.
The FTC appears to be taking the matter seriously, requesting additional information from both Google and DoubleClick. The European Union's privacy agency and the New York State Consumer Protection Board are also concerned about the purchase's effect on browsing privacy.
A Google FAQ page, however, insists that the acquisition, far from endangering privacy, will improve it, and that the company remains committed to respecting users' privacy preferences.
Another danger in switching to hosted services like Google Docs and Spreadsheets and Google Calendar is that of losing access to your data. What happens when the office DSL connection goes down? And how would you make last-minute changes to, say, a critical spreadsheet while you're flying coast-to-coast? The recent launch of Google Gears, which will let you use online apps from Google and other companies without an Internet connection, promises to overcome this limitation, but the service likely won't become widely available for several months. Until then, your data is off limits when you're offline.
"You're accepting dramatically increased [file management] complexity--maybe for good reason--in order to get the benefit of having Google engineers keep everything running for you," observes Edelman. He says that businesses need to consider not only the benefits of outsourcing server management but also the drawbacks of having to keep local versions of documents synchronized with the Google-hosted versions.
Despite the uncertainty of Google's plans for your personal data, the company itself is probably the least of your worries. Instead, warns Edelman, hackers or your business's competitors could try to infiltrate your Google accounts via forged documents or other illegal methods.