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Will Google become "Big Brother"?
The Privacy Concerns You Need to Know

Every time you search for something using Google, that search term gets recorded. It also gets linked to your personal computer (or the computer you used to search for the term) via an IP address. Every individual computer that accesses the Internet has one.

online privacy

Who's keeping tabs on your Internet habits? More people than you may think.

Along with your search terms, Web sites you visit are also recorded, as is other information about your searches, particularly if you sign in or register for anything. How? Through small text files called "cookies" that are placed on your computer anytime you visit a search engine like Google (or many other Web sites, for that matter). With cookies, your browsing habits and personal information can potentially be collected.

The concern is not that Google is collecting this information, but what it could potentially do with it. Already, the company must hand over data for search warrants, subpoenas or other legal orders.

"The prospect of unlimited data retention creates a honey pot for law enforcement," said Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Beyond legal matters, though, questions are being raised that this wealth of data -- your name, e-mail address, birth date, gender, shopping habits, sexual preferences, health, religion, finances, interests and more -- could be misused.

What Else Can Google Find Out About You?

Plenty. If you use Gmail, Google's Web-based e-mail service, you've probably taken advantage of its two gigabytes of free online storage. But did you know that Google scans the content of your e-mails to tailor advertisements to their contexts? And, although the messages can be deleted, it's a complicated process that can take an undetermined amount of time to actually disappear from all of Google's servers.

Meanwhile, Google recently announced its intentions to acquire online advertiser DoubleClick, which helps customize search and other online ads, for $3.1 billion. The merger is being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission and Congress because of potential threats to privacy and competition among online advertisers.

Consumer groups have expressed concern that the combined company would give Google access to an "unprecedented amount of data about consumers' Web usage and Internet search preferences," according to MSNBC.

Perhaps because of rising consumer concerns about Google's respect for privacy, the company has agreed to shorten the lifespan of their cookies. After two years, the information contained in the cookies will automatically expire. Previously the information remained on file until 2038.

online privacy

"Before you Google for something, think about whether you want that on your permanent record," says Kevin Bankston, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

However, every time you visit Google, the two-year period gets automatically extended, meaning the cookies could theoretically never expire if you visit Google often.

Is Google Big Brother?

To be fair, all of the privacy concerns are just speculations at this point. Google has yet to do anything wrong with the data at their fingertips.

Still, privacy advocates view it as a ticking time-bomb just waiting to fall into the wrong hands.

What can you do if Google's potential to create "some of the most detailed individual profiles ever devised," according to Kevin Bankston, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, makes you a little hot under the collar?

First, don't register for Google services or any other online form that asks for personal information (this would also include social online sites like MySpace). Then, you can find an anonymizing proxy network, which sends Internet communication through an encryption and decryption process so that the original destination cannot be traced.

"Your search history shows your associations, beliefs, perhaps your medical problems. The things you Google for define you," Bankston says. "Before you Google for something, think about whether you want that on your permanent record. If not, don't Google, or take steps so the search can't be tied back to you."

Recommended Reading

Workplace Privacy? Here is Why You Now Have NONE

Did You Know that Anyone Can Easily Access Your Cell Phone Records?

Sources July 19, 2007

World Advertising Research Center

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