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With all the issues surrounding personal privacy online, it’s hard to avoid another update on the subject. Equally, with the current Google appearance before a Californian court on charges of violating privacy laws and federal wiretapping statutes, all eyes are on this one.

In a nutshell, Google stand accused of blatant data-mining.

What American does today, as often as not, we follow tomorrow, good or bad. So it matters a great deal how this case turns out.

Q: What’s happening, man?
A: Google’s well-established habit of electronically scanning the contents of users’ Gmail accounts to help sell advertising is being challenged. Governments do it to scan for keywords that may signal the commission of crimes or terrorism. Google just want to sell you more stuff.

Q: How do you mean?

A: Well, you email a friend with details of your recent holiday, talking about camping, hotel, beach, airport and you’ll be hit with holiday and travel ads, whether you want them or not. Google justifies this on the grounds that ‘no human reads emails, it’s fully automated.’

Q: So that’s alright then, isn’t it?
A: Not really. Humans could easily read what the automation has extracted. The president of Consumer Watchdog, Jamie Court, has said that ‘people believe their email is private correspondence, not subject to the eyes of a $180 billion corporation and its whims.’

Q: Privacy is somewhat a thing of the past nowadays, isn’t it, what with social media and all that?
A: Yes, it is, sadly. So is the expectation of it. In August is this court case, Google argued that users of Gmail have ‘no legitimate expectation of privacy.’ Emailers ‘should not be surprised’ if messages are intercepted. They said it was just like sending a letter to a business person was understood it may be opened by a secretary!

Q: Have they got a legal basis for this argument?
A: They cited a Supreme Court ruling from 1979 about electronic communications. This was years before Google existed! They say users ‘voluntarily turn over their information.’ They also argue that regulators should be reassured that users have many ways of opting out of sharing more data than they really want. But you just try and opt out, see how easy it is.

Q: But they have to make a living, don’t they? And data is their business?
A: Absolutely it is, yes. They provide a load of services using data for free to millions. Its leading search engine is still first choice for most browsers of the web and its Android system is becoming universal. Google Ads by themselves are understandable and acceptable.

Q: There you are then. A fair trade-off?
A: But people still pay in other ways. Nothing is free. The level of accuracy it shows in extracting, analysing and using data is quite sinister, in fact. The individual is reduced to a statistic, a fragment of algorithm. Whether we know it and accept it or not, that is now the inescapable truth. We each contribute to our own end of privacy.

Q: Are Google the only bad boys in all this?
A: No, of course not. But some of the others are official agencies of states, so they can do it. It is reported that the USA’s National Security Agency and British intelligence services at GCHQ have ‘unlocked the encryption people use to protect emails, online transactions and their personal data.’ Using supercomputers they have broken encryption ‘by brute force.’

Q: What?
A: The Guardian says it has seen documents which confirm that in 2010, the agencies using this force, collaboration with the industry and inserting backdoor secret vulnerabilities they had the power to ‘make vast amounts of data on the world’s fibre-optic cables exploitable’.

Q: Another what?
A: They say this ability is absolutely essential to fight terrorism and that knowledge of them having such power ‘would raise public awareness generating unwelcome publicity for us and our political masters.’ You bet. But now people know, it can’t make much difference. Terrorism and crime have to be fought.

Q: Another trade off, then?
A: Exactly so. All your private data in return for safety, sounds good. It’s just that the criminals and terrorists seem to avoid giving up much of theirs.

Other blogs worth trawling through on this issue:

Dreaming of Escape from the Tyranny of Unwanted Ads, 28 August 2013

No Place for the Human Touch in Complex Algorithms, 20 August 2013

Some Searching Questions, A Few Ranked Answers About Google, 10 July 2013

Google’s Digital Mirror Reflects the World As It Is, Or How it May Be, 26 June 2013

Robots Googling Each Other Was Only a Matter of Time, 21 May 2013

Too Big to Care About Public Opinion: How the Web Encourages Companies to Ignore What People Think, 20 May 2013

If More Data Sharing Is the Answer, What is the Question? 29 April 2013

The Right to Be Forgotten Is Probably Just Wishful Thinking, 12 March 2013

The World’s Love-Hate Relationship with Google, 23 July 2012

Image: Google trademark