Tuesday was tough for Google. The day began with South Korean police raiding Google’s Seoul office as part of an investigation into whether the search giant has been illegally collecting individuals’ private location data through Android smartphones.
A few hours later, California’s Senate Judiciary Committee voted to push forward the nation’s first “Do Not Track” legislation which would empower Californians to prevent Google’s complex advertising systems from tracking everywhere they visit on the Web. The committee voted 3 to 2 to keep the proposed bill alive, despite Google’s denunciation of any state Do Not Track bill as “unnecessary, unenforceable and unconstitutional.”
And long time Google critic — Precursor analyst Scott Cleland — released his new book: Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc.
Adam Kovacevich, Google’s Washington D.C.-based senior manager of global communications and public affairs, has more than once advised LastWatchdog that he believes Cleland is often inaccurate and untrustworthy, since he has done commissioned work for Microsoft and other Google business rivals. In this exclusive LastWatchdog interview, Cleland discusses the backdrop for his new book.
LW: You spare no hyperbole in vilifying Google; why did you decide to take this approach?
Cleland: My approach tests Google’s most important public representations to see if the facts supported Google’s side of the story. After four years of research, 700+ endnotes, and over 150 quotes from Google executives, I sadly conclude in the book that Google Inc. is untrustworthy, unethical, and shockingly political.
The facts tell us that Google’s business practices warrant contempt and broad investigation by law enforcement authorities around the world. If Google was ethical, accountable and obeyed the law, there would be no need or basis for the investigative accountability approach in Search & Destroy.
LW: Location tracking capabilities of smartphones are suddenly raising privacy concerns. Why should we care about how Google tracks Android users’ whereabouts?
Cleland: Having your physical movements constantly tracked without your meaningful permission is an exceptionally dangerous privacy violation. Google secretly tracks and records Android users location about a thousand times a day in order to build a detailed profile of how and when to best influence you to do what Google or Google’s advertisers want you to do.
The temptation and opportunity for this omni-tracking information to fall into the wrong hands is scarily real. It could be abused by another rogue Google employee, another hacker of Google’s system, Government spy agencies that Google works with, or law enforcement who could gain access to it without a subpoena.
Such an intimate profile of your movements puts you at greater risk of stalking, blackmail, theft, fraud, kidnapping or arrest.
LW: So what if location tracking, like most things Google does, is primarily about delivering more relevant ads?
Cleland: As the book details, polls show that most people: are not willing to trade their privacy for more relevant ads; do not want their online activities tracked; and are not aware of how much of their private information is being collected.
Google has a huge business and brand problem with privacy. Google has made everyone very aware of the many benefits of Google’s free services, but Google has been very deceptive about the privacy and security costs to users of Google’s tracking and profiling that pays for the free services. Simply put: most people don’t want to be tracked or profiled.
LW: What is the connection between how Android handsets use nearby Wi-Fi hotspots to triangulate a user’s whereabouts, and Google previously having sent fleets of Street View cars to tap into unsecured WiFi networks in 30 nations?
Cleland: They are different sides of the same coin. Many nations around the world have investigated and sanctioned Google for illegally eavesdropping on tens of millions of people’s WiFi networks and collecting unencrypted emails and passwords. Google said that three-year effort, now known as “WiSpy,” was a “mistake” and has been discontinued.
What we now know is that Google has not stopped collecting people’s WiFi signals as they pledged publicly, they just secretly changed the signal-collection technology from Street View cars to any device with an Android operating system. In both instances, Google is collecting extremely private information without users meaningful permission or knowledge that irresponsibly puts people at unnecessary risk.
TL: You conclude that public and industry pressure, combined with limited government action, is the only thing that can stop Google. Where do you see this pressure coming from?
Cleland: Informed users, web publishers, and advertisers are already demanding that Google respect others’ privacy and property, obey the law, and be more transparent and accountable. The goal of my book is to make more people aware of the threats Google poses to privacy, property, competition, and even democracy — so that the system can address them appropriately.
–By Byron Acohido