Google Privacy - Fuss Over Nothing?

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 2 March 2012 |

There's now an UPDATE to this article. Please also read Google Tracking Update - Image Search.

Yesterday, there was a big and immediately noticeable change to the way Google operates its businesses. The implications are being hotly debated across the world. But is this a case of an evil corporation abusing its immense power, or a case of the ever-desperate media making a big deal over the French privacy watchdog’s objections to something which is only to be expected in the online world?…

My attention was first drawn to the Google policy changes yesterday when I noticed that this site, along with a photo blog I have on WordPress, had suffered a drop in traffic from Google Image Search. It could have been a co-incidence, but I suspected it wasn’t, and I went to Google Images to see if I could work out what was going on. It didn’t take long. My first search brought up just three lines of thumbnails, and beneath that, blankness. So either Britney Spears had suddenly decided to have all her thousands of images removed from the web, or there was an issue with Google Image Search. The latter seemed infinitely more likely.

All I now get for a full Google image search without web cookies, is a small taster. Before 1st March 2012, Image Search was fully functional with cookies disabled.

I tried another search. Same problem. I shut down my Chromium browser (Chrome with better privacy, basically) and opened up Firefox. Same problem. Opera? Same problem. Only when I finally reached the last resort – good old Internet Explorer – did I actually see the kind of results I was expecting from a Google Image Search. Had IE actually managed to subordinate all the other browsers and deal with an issue which the likes of Firefox and Chrome could not?… No. It was just that Internet Explorer was the only browser I have which is set to accept cookies by default. So, all had become clear. As of 1st March 2012, you can no longer inherently use Google Image Search without accepting cookies from Google. Note: you can however surmount this problem using DuckDuckGo. I've explained towards the end of my DuckDuckGo: A Healthier Web Search? article.

I’m tempted here to fly into a rant, because I’m very privacy focused, and I hate the thought of people wanting to stalk my every move around the web. However, it would be hypocritical of me to launch into some kind of moralistic tirade in this instance, since this site uses Google’s analytics facility. Google Analytics helps me keep an eye on which type of post is giving visitors the best value. It keeps me informed about what visitors really want to know, by providing me with a list of search terms and allowing me to see where, on this site, the popular search terms are leading people. I don’t know specifically which people – by the way. And I don’t need to know. All I need to know is what people are interested in, so I can add it to the site and better ensure that web searches are ending in satisfaction. That’s how the site gets return visits, gets publicised on Facebook, forums and the like, and generally gets busier over time – which is of course what I want.

With Google’s information, then, I can cater for what I know people are specifically looking for. Indeed, I’ve even added information to posts when I know people are seeking out that precise info and being led to a specific page. Planet Botch is a lot more interactive than you might think. Just because there are no comment boxes below the posts, doesn’t mean I’m not constantly monitoring what people want and doing my best to provide it.

So I know that if used conscientiously, web-tracking can benefit people, in ways that don’t involve them being spammed or pestered by some brash, aggressive business which won’t be satisfied until it owns the universe. However, I also know that not everyone wants to be tracked. If people want to visit this site with their cookies disabled, they can. They don’t lose access to any content in doing that, so whether or not someone consents to being tracked has no bearing on what they get from Planet Botch.

But with Google Image Search, that’s no longer the case. Unless you consent to being tracked, Google will no longer allow you to use Image Search beyond the first handful of results. For me, it’s not the fact that tracking exists that’s the problem – it’s the lack of a means to opt-out. One of the reasons I feel Google’s new cookie policy affected my sites yesterday was not that people are typically privacy-obsessed and stopped using Google Image Search in protest. More that a lot of people searching for the info on my sites probably do so from work, and many, many workplaces have cookies disabled by default on their computers. It’s an easy way for companies to stop employees using Twitter and other NSFW (not safe for work – or not necessarily safe for work) sites, on their business systems.

I dare say that in time many companies with arrangements like that will add Google search as an exception to their own cookie policy, and the functionality of Google Images will once again be restored on their computers. But that’s why it’s such an insidious move by Google. Image search can work without cookies, and has done for years. So this is nothing but a way of pressuring more people to consent to being tracked.

I don’t want to single Google out with this, because it’s not just Google. On the contrary. A vast number of big websites force the user to accept cookies if they want any sort of acceptable functionality, and perhaps the biggest surprise is that it’s taken Google this long to start doing the same.

As regards the wider implications of the new Google Privacy Policy (against which the French data protection watchdog CNIL in particular has taken a very strong line) I think the situation can be seen in two ways. Just to clarify for anyone who’s not aware of the crux of the complaint, Google has chosen to pool the user info collected from all of its individual services (Search, YouTube, Blogger, Google Plus, Picasa, Gmail, etc), into one. So any details you provide when using one service, officially become accessible to them all – predominantly, at present, with a view to serving better-targeted adverts across the different platforms. 

Again, the problem for me is not so much the idea, but the fact that users can’t realistically opt out – short of not using any Google services, full stop. And given the stranglehold the search giant has on the web, it’s extremely difficult for any internet user to completely stop using Google. Other search engines are poor in comparison, no matter what any of their advocates say about them. And the lure of YouTube, along with so many other Google services, is just too attractive for many to resist. Without any doubt, Google is using what can almost be considered a monopoly in some areas of the web, to force through a set of self-serving conditions it must know the majority of informed users don’t like.

That’s one way of looking at it. The other is… Let’s be realistic: Google presides over all of these individual brands on the web – most of them free to use, and offering genuine and often very major value to the user. Can we really, in the 21st century, expect that there’s going to be absolutely no price to pay for all that value? Equally, do we really think that, for example, before this policy change, Blogger knew stuff about us which Google wasn’t aware of? To me, that notion is ridiculous. Do we really think we were previously able to conduct all our online surfing and business using a Google Chrome browser, whilst in some way keeping the various Google brands in the dark about what we were doing?…

On paper, before 1st March 2012 there was a separation between the facets of the Google empire, but Google essentially knows everything about everything. There may not previously have been a formal sharing arrangement, but to assume one Google service was formerly in the dark about information we’d provided to another, would in my opinion have been na├»ve in the extreme.

All the policy change really does, as I see it, is close down a potential legal headache which could have arisen when Google rolled out its new ad strategy in an integrated fashion across all its services. Ad unification will make it obvious to the user that all the Google brands are able to access his or her information. So in acknowledging that the info is indeed shared - before it becomes obvious, Google sidesteps any legal questions regarding user privacy. But I don’t believe the new Privacy Policy changes the reality of what the various Google services actually knew/know about us in the slightest. It only changes how candid Google are able to be in revealing what they know.

That said, though, I don’t believe that opponents of Google’s new policy are making a fuss over nothing. Privacy should matter a lot more than it does, and I think there’s a culture on the web and beyond, of complete disrespect for individuals in the way personal data is managed and passed/sold on. Even the National Census – a compulsory collection of very private data by the government – goes public eventually (here in the UK at least). Unless there are some miraculous advances in medical science, you’ll be dead by the time your info is released, but people are still going to be able to find out every detail about who you were, who you lived with, what you earned…

That winds me up much more than this business with Google, because it’s something I can't opt out of at all. At least with Google I can choose to avoid using Google services, but with the Census I’m forced to provide the information whether I like it or not, for any member of the public to read after I’m dead. So is Google the worst offender? Well, this is only my opinion, but I'm not sure it’s even in the worst half of the table. It is, however, far too big an organisation to be ignored, which is why the matter is getting such extensive coverage.

Using Google Anonymously with Anoymouse and the Opera browser.

And as an addendum... I’ve seen some weird and wonderful workarounds suggested for circumventing Google’s tracking. But probably the easiest way to make sure you’re not tracked when you don’t want to be tracked is to simply download a separate browser and use that instead of your regular one. Because that separate browser won’t have any of your passwords or logins, it won’t be able to accidentally log you into any Google services. If you also set that separate browser to completely block cookies, your main ID is your IP address.

Sites such as Anonymouse will prevent Google from seeing your IP address (and Google Web Search is still working via Anonymouse), so if you really want to stop Google tracking you on more private searches, you can. The idea of having two browsers means you can preserve all your logins and bookmarks on your existing browser (keeping the full functionality when you need it), then just selectively use the second browser when you don’t want Google knowing your business. I’ve been doing this since long before the new privacy policy was announced.

As for which separate browser to download, there’s a good choice. If you normally use Chrome or Internet Explorer, you might like to try Firefox, Opera or Lunascape, for instance. The second browser has to be a different type from your main browser – otherwise it’ll just adopt your main browser’s settings when you open it. You can, however, use Chrome and Chromium as separate browsers, and they’ll independently maintain their settings. But bear in mind that both Chrome and Chromium are Google products, so they may not represent the best way to hide from the watchful eye of Google. Sorry the Chromium link doesn't go to source, by the way. (the source site) is a hell of a convoluted affair.

Planet Botch is contactable only via Twitter.