Furor Over Google CEO’s Comments On Privacy

One of the big themes of the week is privacy. Facebook just did a major overhaul of its privacy settings to promote more public dissemination of user information and updates. There was an immediate outcry from some quarters as the site was a bit aggressive in setting users’ defaults to “everyone.”

In addition, Yahoo got called out for trying to suppress its surveillance menu for law enforcement. And Asa Dotzler of Firefox railed against Google and urged users to switch to Bing in response to comments from Google CEO Eric Schmidt that made the latter seem indifferent to consumer privacy.

So what exactly did Schmidt say about privacy?

He told CNBC Anchor Maria Bartiromo, on the cable network’s recent special “Inside the Mind of Google,” that people who have something to hide shouldn’t be doing things online that might potentially expose them if law enforcement seeks access to their search histories.

“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” said Schmidt.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and others have decried that position, especially as others within Google, such as Google VP Marissa Mayer, seek to assure consumers that their privacy is “protected” at Google.

In fairness to Schmidt he was saying that Google (and others) are subject to US law (the “patriot act”) and that law enforcement and government authorities can, as a practical matter, get access to search records because they’re retained “for some time.”

That then — the period of data retention — becomes the practical privacy battleground. Google’s new personalized approach to search results generally seeks to retain user data indefinitely, in cases where users don’t actively delete their histories. Danny explains how it works:

In Signed-Out Web History, Google knows that it has seen someone using a particular browser before. Behind the scenes, it has tracked all the searches that have been done by that browser. It also logs all the things people have clicked on from Google’s search results, when using that browser. There’s no way to see this information, but it is used to customize the results that are shown. It only remembers things for 180 days. Information older than that is forgotten. Google doesn’t know your name. If you use a different browser, Google doesn’t know your past history. In fact, you can’t even see your past history.

In Signed-In Web History, Google knows that a particular Google user is using Google. Behind the scenes, it has kept a record of all the things that person has done when signed-in, regardless of what computer or browser they’ve used. If they’re using the Google Toolbar with the page tracking feature enabled, then it has also kept a record of all the pages they’ve viewed over time. This information can be viewed by the user at any time, and the user can selectively delete info. They can also delete everything, if they want. If they don’t, then Google forgets nothing.

For those not signed in data is retained for 180 days and is associated with a particular browser. For those with a Google account who are signed in, data and web search history are, as mentioned, retained indefinitely until actively deleted.

The Google Chrome browser has a private “incognito” mode where no web history is captured. (Microsoft’s IE8 offers comparable functionality, called inPrivate browsing.) However if you’re signed in to a Google account while in incognito mode Google will still capture your search history:

if you sign into your Google Account while in incognito mode, your subsequent web searches are recorded in your Google Web History. In this case, to prevent your searches from being stored in your Google Account, you’ll need to pause your Google Web History tracking.

All this is not unlike the Facebook default “everyone” settings. Google will capture your search history and behavior unless you take affirmative action to prevent or block it.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Google: Personalized Search | Legal: Privacy | Top News

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • http://www.texasenergyrates.blogspot.com Shadab Malik

    This seems like a beginning of the end of Google saga. With Asa Dotzler of Firefox reacting so strongly, the momentum may just build up further. Does this mean firefox may start using bing too for their default page?

    I don’t completely disagree with Eric and I am sure many of us would not. Ethically / morally he is correct (like a parent/teacher). However, people still need their privacy and would not want it to be breached for commercial or any other purposes.

  • http://thecommunicationsstrategist.wordpress.com/ dkasrel

    When you are in the privacy of your home browsing on your personal computer, unless you are engaged in something illegal, then we expect privacy. Yes, the data is stored, and data mined via computer algorithms, we know that, but we don’t expect our search history to be available to the public. Likewise, if we are on a social network where you have to agree to be connected to someone, then we expect that our communications are just between our circle of connections. Otherwise, why have the process of having to accept connections in the first place?

    I daresay, if, when the telephone was invented, if it was set up that all our phone conversations were made pubic by default, it would have been a commercial failure.

    Just because current technology enables the capture, storage and publication of user data doesn’t mean we should have to make a special request to maintain privacy.

  • http://vaby42 vaby42

    its great news

  • DavidSH

    In the era of the Internet Google is more dangerous to privacy than Microsoft – actually Microsoft is the underdog and perhaps our best hope to check Google! Oh the irony

  • Stupidscript

    I agree that Schmidt was (a) pragmatically correct and (b) wrong to have said so. It was a slip of his tongue that put his company in jeopardy. That’s a mistake.

    dkasrel: When the phone system was set up, all calls WERE public calls. I strongly remember having a “party line” with several other rural neighbors. All one had to do was to quietly pick up the receiver to listen in on one of their phone calls … or they, ours. I couldn’t count the number of times one of us said, “Oops, sorry” before hanging up and trying our call again, later, because a neighbor or housemate was already on the line.

    DavidSH: Start up your Windows operating system, like 90% of the rest of the world, and use Bing. Voila! No Google. Now try to do that without Microsoft. Hmmm. You would be slightly less successful. The underlying reality is that the operating systems designer has a lot more control over what you do and information about what you do than any search engine will ever have … and, AFAIK, no search engine has ever sent details about what you have on your computer to its licensors, just to make sure you didn’t steal it from them. Think about who is a bigger threat to privacy, the next time you get a notice that “Updates are ready for your computer”.

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