Google will sell your personal data. Why? Because as growth slows, Google needs the money. The era of (mostly) private internet activity is over. Companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo will collect as much information about users as they can (add Adobe with Flash in the mix) … and sell the information. They will do this, because there is so much money in doing so. Money from advertisers, money from direct marketers, money even from criminals, other governments, and even NGOs, and terrorist groups. Google’s “Street View” troubles where they hacked into user’s unsecured Wi-Fi networks and collected personal information including e-mails and other private data were no accident.
Indeed, Google is likely slower than most (due to size related inertia and lots of cash in the bank) to take advantage of the ability to sell the most personal and private information about people in mass quantities. This development marks the beginning of the mass-identity theft movement, so to speak, and is likely to spread to sites like Hulu, or even Netflix, Amazon, Wal-Mart, and other mass market service and retail providers. In turn, it is likely to create among ordinary users a desire to avoid constant surveillance. Through anonymizers, cookie filtering, even MAC address spoofing and surfing over free Wi-Fi spots. The sites and service/retail/entertainment providers that survive will ironically mostly do so by not selling their user’s information but by providing either useful news or entertainment, like Hulu’s free service or say, various news sites (DrudgeReport being the model), analysis and/or links like the Instapundit.com or City Journal sites, specialized reporting (Blackfive or Slashdot for military or computer affairs respectively), or value added service, such as Amazon’s site, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times.
As the article in the Journal points out, Google is experiencing slowing growth, and increased competition for user time and users period, from social networks like Twitter and especially, Facebook. The latter being notorious for collecting massive amounts of user data … and selling it. To almost any comer. The pressure to keep earnings up (and the money rolling in) is going to be too big for Google to ignore. “Don’t be evil,” is weak sauce compared to all the potential money. Controls are likely to be weak, too, in selling user data, which is really only valuable when ALL information about a particular user is collected and correlated.
Anonymous browsing information about searches, email content, Google Docs content, Google Mobile content, and more, all disconnected, is worth far less to everyone than specific information about a person, from all sources, correlated and ready for analysis. Ford, GM, Chrysler, Honda, Toyota, Kia, Hyundai, Nissan, Mazda, and Subaru would all like detailed info about each person searching for cars, including price points searched for (say on Edmunds.com), any ads viewed and particularly, clicked on, yearly salary, zip code, phone numbers, places visited (Starbucks vs. McDonalds), taxes paid, and anything else that allows “mass personalization” of ads targeted directly to the person in question. Or avoids targeting the person in the first place (because of disqualifiers like low income, or existing other-brand preference, and the like). The ad might not sit on a webpage a user visits, or a Google Email ad inside an email, either. It could be delivered to a smart phone, or sent as a text message, or even be the subject of a “mass customized” robo-call to phones. Already Wal-Mart and other retailers are experimenting with “coupons” sent to users smart phones — in the store!
That of course is merely the benign usage of sold information. Governments, including those abroad, would be intensely interested in ordinary users information, the better to collect taxes, or fines, for all sorts of activities. Indeed the tax and fine angle is likely to predominate, but there is no particular reason that say, Iran, could not collect information about masses of users who viewed “anti-Islam” or “anti-Jihad” material — and use that to issue international arrest warrants that many governments (particularly in Europe with large Muslim voting blocs and populations) would honor. This would be particularly popular with failing regimes wanting to either create a shake-down of “anti-Muslim Westerners” or real punishment, both likely hugely popular among their Muslim subjects and citizens.
Gangsters too, are likely to want that information. Blackmail, identity theft, or both, could be lucrative sidelines with little risk for those based outside nations with a strong civil society and police enforcement. Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, much of Latin America, would be likely home bases for such action. Failing states such as North Korea and Pakistan would be likely to get in on the action by officials. Imagine the blackmail possibilities of anyone visiting porn or other socially unacceptable sites linked to actual, real identities, and demands for payoffs else specific contacts are notified about said online activity. With the ability to mass call, i.e. “robo calls” this could be quite lucrative, say blackmail of 5 million people at $400 a pop, is $2 billion. Computers enable crooks too, particularly the imaginative and organized. Since half the Third World governments fall into the category of “organized crooks” this is a real threat.
Nor would the fundraising be limited to say, the Zetas or Kim Jong-Il. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are always short of funds, and would also like to make statements. Blackmail, or simple identity theft and fraud, on a massive scale, combined perhaps with explicit “examples” distributed to free-lancers over the internet, the equivalent of a “Craigs List for Terrorists” has the ability to turn AQ’s fairly distributed nature after the US response to 9/11 into a huge plus. Glenn Reynold’s “Army of Davids” in a way he never anticipated.
The impact of Google selling user data is not individual stalking, or anything like that. It is opening up the biggest storehouse of user-data on the planet, a more comprehensive and LARGER database than any compiled by the Stasi or other Communist-era, early computer age secret police, that is likely to bring the downside of globalization home personally to every user of the internet.
In NBC’s “Life” the lead character (played fantastically by “Band of Brothers” lead Damien Lewis) mused that “everything is connected” (via Zen and plotlines). Now, everything is actually connected. North Korean secret police, Zeta gangsters, Pakistani ISI agents, Al Qaeda, and the US and UK governments can all peer into great masses of user data (the Chinese likely already have peered into Google’s vast user database given their alleged hacking of Google’s servers and code). Use the data to find tax cheats, people who did not sort their rubbish in wheelie bins, or five million potential blackmail or identity theft victims. With the release this week of “Max Headroom” on DVD, “fifteen minutes into the future” looks in some ways much like, well, Max Headroom. Not a Blade Runner, dark and bleak, recycled Road-Warrior technology, but no escape from constant surveillance and an “always on” media presence. Its not Television (in “Max Headroom” it was illegal to install an “off-switch” on TVs) but the internet. People are unlikely to go to the extremes of “erasing” themselves from databases like the character “Blank Reg” (“Remember when we told you there was no future? Well, this is it.” — the best line ever on TV) and in fact, they cannot. Because Google will never let them.
But the internet is likely to become rapidly a two-tiered system. A crummy, crime-ridden place much like Network 23′s dystopia in “Max Headroom” where no one has privacy or security, and “gated communities” where folks pay to be secure. Google, a company that explicitly sought to change the world for the better, is likely to be one of the main drivers towards a future that digitally at least, will resemble “Max Headroom.”