Will Google ever be too big to trust with our secrets? The search giant’s business portfolio now spans healthcare, wireless, business web apps, and social networks.
What Google knows about you, and why you should care
If you have a Google email account, use Google search, and see online ads that are served by Google's DoubleClick, the chances are good that Google knows more about you than you might want to share with your significant other.
To get a handle on just how big Google is, click here for an interactive mind map (or diagram) of Google's empire created by our colleagues over at PCWorld.com. This interactive map allows you to explore over 100 of the company's products, services, and investments. It's a real eye-opener once you consider Google's push into so many aspects of our lives.
Google: What's Not to Love?
One reason we give Google a pass on privacy issues: It is a likeable brand. It offers dozens of free consumer services we enjoy: from Google Earth, Picasa photo editing software and image hosting, to Google Docs. The quid pro quo we agree to is giving Google bits of our personal information so that the Internet giant can more effectively follow us around the Web and target ads to us.
But the bigger Google gets and the more we rely on it, the more our tolerance for Google's digital omnipresence becomes challenged. Over the past months we've glimpsed the ugly side of our bargain with Google. A number of privacy-related lawsuits, formal complaints to the Federal Trade Commission from advocacy groups, and rumors of Department of Justice antitrust scrutiny - all may suggest that our enthusiasm for Google is cooling.
Google Privacy Screwups
In May Google admitted that its Street View cars were collecting sensitive personal information from unencrypted wireless networks along with harvesting photos of the world's roadways. A privacy uproar erupted in Germany, where the inadvertent snooping was discovered, and the outrage made its way to this country, where Washington's Neil Mertz and Oregon's Vicki Van Valin have filed a class-action lawsuit against Google, accusing it of violating federal privacy and data acquisition laws.
The lawsuit alleges that Google collected parts of documents, email messages, video, audio, and VoIP information being sent over networks scanned by Google's Street View cars. The plaintiffs are seeking up to $10,000 for each time that Google collected data from unprotected hotspots, according to court documents.
Google acknowledged the privacy snafu, and said it hadn't known it was collecting the extra data until recently and would delete it. Meanwhile, Google faces a criminal investigation in Germany over the matter; and here in the United States the Federal Trade Commission was asked by privacy groups such as EPIC (the Electronic Privacy Information Center) to investigate Google's stateside data collection.
No Stranger to Privacy Flubs
Google is in a familiar privacy pickle here. Just last February privacy advocates blasted Google when it launched its Google Buzz social network for exposing Gmail contacts when users opted into the service.
Artwork: Chip TaylorGoogle cofounder Sergey Brin acknowledged mistakes were made when the Google Buzz social network was launched. "We screwed up, and I'm not making excuses about it," he said at the company's developers conference in May.
Before that, Google apologized when it was discovered that Google could see what you type in the Chrome browser's Omnibox address/search bar and record it, along with your IP address, before you even hit the Enter key. The list of high-profile Google privacy flubs is extensive, going back even before 2004 and a privacy uproar over Desktop Search.
Google's missteps are a growing concern among privacy experts. In April ten privacy commissioners from countries including Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom sent a complaint letter to Google expressing concern regarding the company's privacy practices. They stated that Google "willfully" disregards privacy laws in many countries when rolling out new products (specifically Google Buzz).
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