Are Google’s Reassurances About Protecting Online Privacy Genuinely Altruistic, Or Just Weasel Words?

There was an interesting article in yesterday’s edition of the Washington Post which might surprise you, given there’s not been too much publicity about it over this side of the pond.

Apparently Google is set to run a series of educational advertisements on the importance of protecting personal information online. The advertisements are set to run in most of the major publications like the New York Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Times, as well as in magazines like Time and the New Yorker. Google is also planning to paste its message across billboards in the subways of New York and Washington and use the message online on its own and affiliated websites.

So, on the face of it it’s quite a laudable campaign isn’t it? We’re all concerned with our privacy and try our best not to give too much away when we’re online. Yet the irony comes from the fact that many critics believe that Google itself is the biggest transgressor when it comes to online privacy violations, having been done up like a kipper on various occasions in the last year or two. So, what’s the message that Google’s trying to get across, and do we accept it for what it claims to be – helpful advice, or is there some other less altruistic reason lurking in the background that the search giant would rather keep quiet?

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Google’s ‘Good to know ‘ ads claim to address some of the pressing online privacy and security issues that are on everyone’s minds at the moment.

All the advertisements will unsurprisingly link back to the search giant’s website for additional information.

It’s believed the initial ads will cover such topics as how to protect online account passwords and the use of computer coding to locate and identify Web surfers. Google will also try to explain why it makes extensive use of personal information already, claiming its widely used search engine can only produce more helpful results if it knows more about the past interests of the person making the request.

However critics within the industry have been less than generous about Google’s main intention, claiming that at best the campaign is disingenuous, and at worst nothing more than a smokescreen. In 2010 Google mistakenly disclosed the personal contacts of its email users when it launched the social service called Buzz. The major gaffe resulted in an US FTC demanding that the search giant should in future submit to external privacy policy audits every year. Later that same year, Google’s commitment to privacy was again challenged when it reluctantly acknowledged that company-dispatched cars taking photos of streets around the world for Google Earth had also been monitoring the personal e-mail and website activity that occurred over unsecured wireless networks set up in homes and small businesses.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Centre for Digital Democracy is amongst many who are distinctly unimpressed with Google’s claim to value personal privacy:

“This campaign should be nominated for some kind of award for fiction. If grades were given out for privacy protection, Google would get a D plus.”

The reason why so many industry insiders are doubting Google’s proclamations of integrity, is that they come at a time when regulators in both the US and Europe are considering whether to legislate to limit the amount of personal data that websites can gather about their visitors. The more personal information gathered, the more likely it is that businesses can successfully target those customers who are likely to buy their products or services. Google’s hands are certainly tied on targeted advertising as this is where it makes most of its money from: $27 billion in the first 9 months of the year in fact.

So is the concern about privacy issues genuine or merely an attempt to sweet talk the legislators and hopefully persuade them to back off?

Well, who knows? All we can say for sure is that Google denies that there’s any ulterior motive behind the campaign. Alma Whitton, Google’s director of privacy for product and engineering maintained:

“We all have family and friends that ask us for advice on privacy and security all the time. Those recurring questions made Google realize it should do something to give everyone a better grasp on the fundamentals of online privacy.”

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