Google, the spy we love

Passing through the Frankfurt Airport on my way from Milan to SMX West, I couldn’t help but notice the front page of Germany’s weekly newspaper, Die Zeit (The Time).
Google. Der Spion, den wir lieben. (Die Zeit)

Google. Der Spion, den wir lieben.

Google weiß alles. Der Internetgigant aus Kalifornien macht uns das Leben leicht. Zugleich aber folgt er uns im Netz auf Schritt und Tritt – nun auch über das Google-Handy. (Die Zeit, 5. Februar 2009)

The image, inspired by 007, says:

Google. The spy we love.
Google knows everything. The California Internet giant makes life easy. Yet at the same time Google follows our every step on the net – now through the Google cell phone as well.

Germany, with its difficult 20th century history of Nazism and a Russian/German brand of Communism, is very sensitive to the risks associated with a “big brother” watching over us. Yet as the article points out, most people are willing to accept Google’s knowing our every movement to the extent that Google unobtrusively makes our life easier.

This same theme is echoed in today’s USA Today Money section article, Feel like someone’s watching you? Google’s G1 makes it easy to track surfing habits.

Google’s usage of personal data, such as our web search history, has given us more pertinent organic and paid search results. When we are logged into Gmail, Google Analytics or other Google applications, Google already knows what we as individuals are searching for – from “cheap flights Milan – Rome” in the morning to what is probably the most searched topic on the web, ahem, porn, in the evening. Google uses this specific knowledge to improve contextual advertising – the cash cow which continues to underwrite the applications we love, from Google Maps to Google Apps and Docs.

To be fair, Google isn’t the only one tracking our movements.

Milan’s public transportation system, ATM, collects data from every magnetic ticket which passes through a turnstile. Not a real concern if I use an anonymous carnet or weekly ticket. If anything, the ATM is better able to service me by understanding my exact transport needs from point A to point B. A potential conflict arises when I use a personal ticket – one where the ATM has my name. This is certainly a double edge sword: the data can serve as my alibi or perhaps incriminate me!

In the particular case of the highly visible Google, there is of course the risk of a privacy backlash. Should Google’s management become less enlightened and “misuse” our personal information, I have no doubt legislators will quickly restrict what data Google and other web properties may collect. To Google’s detriment and probably ours as well. I would hope that Google heads this off at the pass by allowing people to select the level of tacking they’re willing to accept in order to take advantage of specific functionality, similar to the anonymous browsing mode, aka porn mode, in modern browsers.

Do you care if Google knows what you’re thinking and where you are?
Google weiß	wo du bist. (Die Zeit)Google weiß wo du bist. (Die Zeit) Google knows where you are.

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About Sean Carlos

Sean Carlos is a digital marketing consultant & teacher, assisting companies with their Search (SEO + SEA = SEM), Social Media & Digital Media Analytics strategies. Sean first worked with text indexing in 1990 in a project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Since then he worked for Hewlett-Packard Consulting and later as IT Manager of a real estate website before founding Antezeta in 2006. Sean is an official instructor of the Digital Analytics Association and collaborates with the Bocconi University. He is Chairman of the SMX Search and Social Media Conference, 12 & 13 November in Milan. He is also a co-author of the Treccani encyclopedic dictionary of computer science, ICT & digital media. Born in Providence, RI, USA, Sean received Honors in Physics from Bates College, Maine. He speaks English, Italian and German.

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