In my previous post I talked about some useful things I’d discovered about Google’s Web History feature. As you might expect, several commenters asked about various aspects of privacy for Web History. I gave a quick response in my comments, but I figured that I would also write my comments as a separate post so that I could easily point back to them later. The following is my personal opinion about Google and privacy, not any kind of company position.
My short answer is that from working at Google for the last 7-8 years, I’ve seen firsthand how much Google works to protect users’ privacy. I personally believe that we take more precautions and safeguards than any other major search engine. We also strongly protect users’ privacy outside of Google (e.g. last year when the DOJ tried to get access to users’ queries, and Google was the only company out of 30+ that said “no” and went to court about it — and won). Note also the recent decision Google made to anonymize user queries after 18-24 months; other search engines haven’t really tackled this topic after Google made its decision. Also bear in mind that even if you sign up for a Google Account, you don’t need much more than an email address to sign up; other search engines ask for much more info.
Another point is that your ISP has a superset of data that Google has, because everything you do passes through your ISP. So your ISP may have much more detailed records about places where you go on the net, plus they have a verified identity with something like a credit card, and they actually know which IPs you’re on. With Google if you clear cookies and turn off your cable modem for a minute or two, you’ll usually get a completely new IP address. Google would have no idea that it’s the same person, but your ISP would still know, because they assigned the new IP address. Many of the questions about privacy I see are interesting because ISPs have more data than Google does, but you rarely see people ask questions about ISPs, even though at least some ISPs do sell clickstream data.
As an employee who has worked at Google since 2000, I’ve seen how carefully we treat issues of privacy. If you haven’t read my declaration from the DOJ case last year, I’d recommend checking it out. Pages 11 & 12 are good reading, for example. So my personal belief would be that if privacy is important to you, Google should not be your biggest concern for two reasons. First, I believe Google does more to protect our users’ privacy than any other major search engine. Second, I believe other companies such as ISPs have a superset of the data that Google has, plus they have verified payment/identity, plus they know which IP addresses you are on, even if you switch IP addresses.
From what I know about Google and its respect for privacy, I will be happily using Google’s features. Ultimately, however, if you feel concerned about a particular Google feature, then I wouldn’t use that feature. That’s your choice and I absolutely, completely 100% support that. Again, this is just my personal opinion, but that’s my quick take on privacy and Google.
Update: Completely unbeknownst to me, Tim O’Reilly wrote a Google and privacy post at about the same time. It’s also an interesting read for a different perspective.