Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Cost of Free

It is difficult, if not impossible to use the Internet without using one of the Google services.  The very word Google is synonymous with searching for information; if you don’t believe me you can “Google it”.  YouTube is the preeminent video posting service and going viral with a video is part of everyday life appearing in television commercials and sitcoms.  Gmail is the largest web-based mail system and the Google document suite is a serious contender to Microsoft Office as the most used suite of productivity applications.  It is an empire as vast as Alexander the Great’s.  With a single Google account sign in, all these services are available to any Internet connected device absolutely free of charge.

Recently, Google changed their privacy policy and caused quite a stir in the press.  Everything from the hysterical Fox News headline “Google Selling Your Personal Information”, to the sedate “What’s the Big Deal with Google’s Privacy Policy” from Business Insider.  This wide range of reaction was interesting, if not fascinating.  Reactions represented the various political viewpoints, the vast gap in the general public’s understanding of technical issues and the fear that results when you don’t comprehend how to control your digital identity.  This got me thinking about the roles and responsibilities of digital citizenship.  The Internet offers us free services, but are they really free?

What Google did was essentially share your information across the Google suite of services to provide you with better information and to better target the advertisements you see.  They did not sell off information to other companies.  Google divides sharing into two categories: personal information and non-personal information.  Non-personal information, as defined by Google, is your server logs, cookies, and IP address.  Essentially, your YouTube information is now shared with your Google search history with the things that you send in your Gmail.  Personal information: “Sensitive personal information includes information we know to be related to confidential medical information, racial or ethnic origins, political or religious beliefs or sexuality and tied to personal information” is specifically NOT gathered or shared at all.  This is exactly the information that most Internet users thought was being shared!

Although this might make you feel somewhat relieved; it suggests a much larger question.  Is it Google’s responsibility to protect your privacy?  Most people know that Google is a “for profit” company that is in the business of selling advertising.  When we conduct a Google search, we get advertising along with our search results and it is the advertising that pays for the Google services.  By collecting information on the topics you search for, Google learns how to make your searches better and it also learns how to give you advertisements that match your interests.  This benefits you, benefits Google and benefits the advertisers.  That is the deal.  If you choose to use these services, YOU are sharing your search information with Google and you should know that they are going to use it.  The responsibility of managing your digital information is entirely yours and it is part of being a digital citizen. 

With Google, you have three choices: 1) Use the tools that Google provides to manage your electronic profile 2) Avoid using any Google services entirely 3) Trust Google and other Internet service companies with your information.

One way to ensure that your information is safe is to manage what information is kept.  Google provides tools to help manage your personal information.  First, there is the Google dashboard that is specifically designed to answer the question: “What does Google store in my account?”  Each Google service is listed with links that allow you to manage your information within that service.  A brief informational video is available on YouTube at: http://goo.gl/H9RMS.  To get to the Google dashboard, simply go to http://google.com/dashboard and log in to your Google account.   Each of the Google services you use are listed with links to manage each service. 

Another resource is the Google Ads Manager.  It is no secret that Google’s goal is the target advertising to the topics that you might be interested in.  The Google ads preference allows you to see what topics that Google believes you are interested in based upon your search history and the kinds of advertisements that you will receive.  You can change the topics, add ne topics or delete topics to control the advertisements so you see information that might want.  The Ads Preference manager is available at http://google.ads.preferences.

The final Google tool is in the Chrome browser.  If you are using Chrome you can open an anonymous window that disassociates the actions in this window from your Google account.  It allows you to use multiple Google accounts, or to keep information from being associated with a specific Google account.  While it does not prevent the collection of cookies and potentially, your browsing history, it will not connect these to your Google account.

The second option is to simply avoid Google services.  It is possible to search the Internet, view video, send email, and connect with others without ever using a Google service.  One secure Internet search tool is DuckDuckGo available at http://www.duckduckgo.com.  This search engine pledges to not collect any information on you, track your cookies or IP address.  The scope and relevance of Internet searches is not quite what Google provides, but if security is a prime concern for you, it is an option.  You can trade your Gmail account for a secure account at HushMail.  This free mail site will provide you with an anonymous email account and is available at http://www.hushmail.com.  Finally, for video you can use Blinkx at http://www.blinkx.com.  Again the trade off with Blinkx is that is lacks the breadth and scope of Google’s YouTube.  Another limitation is that each of these is a separate service that is not connected to the others like the Google suite, so you have to access and manage each individually.  Using multiple services is not as convenient, but the disassociation is a security strength because services cannot collaborate to create a digital profile of you.

The final choice is to simply trust Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, or Facebook and other giants of the Internet to “not be evil”.  Sharing information allows companies to provide you better services, more targeted searches, anticipate your preferences and make your online experiences better.  To do this, they need your information.  If you are willing to trade your data for better service, then this might be the path for you.  Before you trust blindly, you should do a search of the company’s security and privacy policies to be sure that the cost of these free services is not too high.  A real danger could be sharing data with other companies without telling you, or changing their security policy without notification.  As President Reagan said, ”Trust, but verify”.

As we move into the age of software as a service and increased use of cloud based services to store our data, music, do our shopping and connect with friends and colleagues, managing your digital footprint becomes increasingly important.  With each of the “free” online services you use, you reveal more and more about what you do and when you do it.  Mobile devices allow you to access services anywhere, but the same technology that immediately displays your location on a map, can also tell others where you are at any time.  You must make some serious decisions about the information you are willing to share and what information you do not want to keep private.  Free services are not free, they come at the cost of sharing your data and at some point the cost of a “free” service is just too high.  To blame a company for changing their security policy publicly is unfair.  As Thomas Jefferson said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”  Be very wary of the “free” service, and know the bargain you are making before plunging headlong into using an Internet service without doing due diligence.  The responsibility for your Internet safety is yours and yours alone!

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