Adam Fields (weblog)

This blog is largely deprecated, but is being preserved here for historical interest. Check out my index page at for more up to date info. My main trade is technology strategy, process/project management, and performance optimization consulting, with a focus on enterprise and open source CMS and related technologies. More information. I write periodic long pieces here, shorter stuff goes on twitter or


Google wants your logs

I’ve been kicking this around for a while, given the release of Google’s ability to save searches.

Google just announced the Google Web Accelerator, and this has the same kinds of privacy issues surrounding it, so I’ll discuss them both here. For those not in the know, Google Search History is the feature that lets you access your past searches if you’re logged into Google. The Web Accelerator is a proxy that pushes all of your browsing through Google’s servers. Ostensibly, this is to make your browsing faster, but it also has the side effect that Google can (and presumably will) monitor both the URLs and contents of every web page you’re looking at. You make a request for a web page, and Google fetches it for you. I’d expect that they’re also doing various tricks with preloading and caching.

Google is poised to collect a lot of data on browsing habits, and every indication is that they plan to keep it around.

As a brief aside, while I don’t personally know anyone who works for Google, I do have some friends who do. Every one of them has, in the past, asserted during conversations about Google’s privacy concerns, that Google both has (or had) no intentions of keeping permanent searching / browsing logs, and has (or had) actually built up complicated encryption / hashing mechanisms to allow aggregate data to be kept without individual search histories. That may have been true at one time, although I personally found it doubtful, given that if it were true, Google could only benefit by stating it publicly. They have never done so, and recent events have shown that assertion to be presently categorically false. Google does want to keep your individual search history. I think that’s a relevant point to the privacy debate.

In reference to search history, I wrote but never published, the following: “Search history is a sensitive area. Saving and aggregating search history is of dubious value to the end user – it’s maybe a minor convenience at best. If you care about that sort of thing, you’ll want to capture for yourself far more information than just search history, and do it locally across the board. There are several plugins for Firefox that will do exactly that for you, and not only watch your tracks, but save complete copies of everything you’re browsing.” In reference to the web accelerator, it’s evident that Google is heading towards collecting that information for themselves.

Set aside the fact that Google has now become an extremely juicy target for a one-stop shop for identity thieves. I’m sure they’ve got great security. But do you? Google’s lifetime cookie is, as always, a serious point of possible failure. One good cross-site scripting attack or IE exploit, or even a malicious extension, and the Google cookie can be easily exposed. What’s your liability for being associated with a search history, or now a browsing history, tied to a stolen Google cookie?

But here’s the real doozie.

The Google Privacy Policy states that Google may disclose personally identifiable information in the event that:

“We conclude that we are required by law or have a good faith belief that access, preservation or disclosure of such information is reasonably necessary to protect the rights, property or safety of Google, its users or the public.”

Welcome to Google, where the Third Law comes first.

This has serious implications. For logged-in users using all of Google’s services, this now includes the contents of your emails, your complete search AND browsing history, any geographical locations you’re interested in, what you’re shopping for, and probably plenty of things I haven’t thought of yet.

I posit that it would not significantly damage Google in any way for them to actually make use of this information, and that Google could withstand any public backlash resulting from it.

I think we’ve long passed the point at which we say “this is bad”.

This is bad.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, there’s a word for this.

It’s called “surveillance”.

I believe that Google should revise their privacy policy to reflect the actual intended usage of this information, and they should clarify under what circumstances this information will be released, and to whom. Will this information be used to catch terrorists? Errant cheating spouses? Tax evaders? Jaywalkers? Anarchists? Litterbugs? As a user, you have a right to demand to know. Of course, don’t expect Google to tell you, since they don’t actually get any of their money from you.


Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress