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Honey-Collecting Buzz

February 13, 2010

Is it a Buzz I hear or the low hum of constant surveillance by the Biggest of Brothers?  Yes, Google Buzz has been released, leading to a variety of reactions ranging from apathy to paranoia.  In a twist of Hegelian proportions, now that online activity is less private in a more convenient and feature-filled way than ever before, people are realizing that online privacy might be something worth minding.  Google Buzz just appearing in your inbox one day seems to have tipped Google’s hand on just how much of your online persona can be seen by anyone, whether you think you’re sharing that information or not.

With the release of Google Buzz, Google touted the “No Setup Needed: Automatically follow the people you email and chat with the most in Gmail” as a feature.  Of course, this means that even before you change any settings in Google Buzz, someone could go into your profile and see the people you email and chat with most.  Once you’ve take care of covering up the bits of your now-exposed e-life and realize you don’t like the feature constantly haranguing you with updates from your putative friends, it is pretty easy to shut Buzz out of your Gmail inbox.

But that doesn’t mean Google isn’t still sharing your information with others with more voyeuristic preferences.  Turning Buzz off altogether requires slightly more work; it’s not difficult, but it is an opt-out system which means that a vast majority of users will stay opted-in because of inertia.

In LOLcat, Buzz would roughly translate to:

“HAI GUYS, WE ALREADY CAN HAZ UR DATA, AND NOW UR FRIENDZ CAN HAZ CUZ WE SEZ SO!  W00T!”

Even from a sheer engineering standpoint, Buzz seems subject to some abuse wholly separated from the privacy concerns.

And as always, The Onion’s take is pitch-perfect satire.

From a technological perspective, Google Buzz isn’t at all surprising or revolutionary; in fact, it’s precisely the opposite: it’s a mere amalgamation of some of the data and interconnections Google already knew about you, but hadn’t yet explicitly told you that it knew, and it certainly hadn’t told the rest of the world (again, as far as you knew). Google’s “feature creep” has given a slight wake-up call to its users, and demonstrated that privacy complacence can have serious collective impact when all of your data has already been handed over through various other channels. Let that give you some pause before signing up for Facebook’s upcoming webmail service.

Luckily for those of us who had donned the tinfoil hats long ago (even if we haven’t managed to get ourselves to quit Google…or Facebook), the data isn’t worth much without  constant “new-and-improved features,” which in turn tell users to fight back every now and again.  The problem is that mild, factious, and temporary levels of user outrage and savvy usually results in more covert and dastardly uses of the data by the collectors.  For example, when Facebook’s Beacon went away, that didn’t exactly limit the types of data they collected, they just expanded the rest of the platform to encompass more user activity, and then said that this new information would simply be “publicly available” (i.e., to advertisers) after enough of a back-and-forth that most users forgot about it).

Think about it this way: companies like Google, Facebook, etc. invest millions and billions to give you a highly functional product free of charge.  Why?  Because your mere participation is worth plenty to them.  Do you have any idea how much you’re worth?  How much they’re getting off you?  Would you like to know?  Do you think you have a right to some of that cash yourself?  The only solution (and a pipe dream at that) to the root cause power imbalance and information asymmetry at issue here probably lies in requiring online service providers to engage in some kind of transparent bargaining system where users can actually capture (or at least knowingly trade away) the value of their personally identifying data.  Otherwise, these online services we continue to consume are just so much bait on a hook.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. slickricks permalink*
    February 15, 2010 8:52 am

    UPDATE: Google has reacted to privacy complaints and disabled the auto-follow feature. It’s good to know users’ demands don’t always fall on deaf ears, but as I pointed out, continued viligence will be necessary. Luckily, I think a savvier group of users care about Google privacy than Facebook.

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