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Google and the privacy Richter scale

By Jay Cline on Mar 07, 2012
Jay Cline About the author

Jay Cline

Jay Cline is president of Minnesota Privacy Consultants . You can reach him at cwprivacy@computerworld.com

Last week, Google followed through on its plan to consolidate its 60 privacy policies into a single approach. Some privacy advocates and regulators are worried that Google will now be able to know and track people like never before. But on the scale of all the bad things that could happen to our privacy, where does Google's change in approach rank? Have we crossed a Rubicon toward the obliteration of personal privacy, or is a new day dawning for more control over our personal data?

There really isn't any universally accepted way to answer this question.

On one extreme are people who tend to see any increase in data collection, sharing and exposure as a long slide down the slippery slope toward losing our liberty. On the other extreme are people who love the benefits of new technologies enough that they disregard any privacy concern as a non-issue.

The truth has to be somewhere in between. Not all privacy issues are created equal. Some rank only a 1 on the privacy Richter scale -- an unnoticeable tremor that does no damage -- while others rank an unqualified 10 that merit a widespread emergency response. Knowing the difference can help you sort through all the hype and know which privacy news to pay attention to.

What would a privacy Richter scale look like? See if these criteria make sense for you.

Privacy Richter readings 1 to 3

Earthquakes measuring on the lower end of the Richter scale are detected but hardly felt. What is the equivalent for a privacy tremor? These would be privacy events that make the news but pose no lasting harm to individuals or society as a whole.

You've probably experienced some or many of these privacy tremors -- receiving someone else's mail, having someone expose something embarrassing about you to co-workers or friends, or losing your wallet or purse. A privacy Richter 1 or 2 event is a temporary bad turn for you or a handful of people, but nothing systemic.

At the upper end of this category, you might see incidents affecting millions of people but in a minor way. I'd rank the controversies over online-behavioral advertising, consumer tracking and customer data analytics at this level -- a privacy Richter 3. A lot of data is being collected, but it's being used to sell people stuff. They don't have to buy the stuff, and they might actually like the stuff, so it's not clear what harm has been caused or where liberty or dignity has been irreparably lost.

Privacy Richter readings 4 to 7

Earthquakes measuring 4 to 7 on the Richter scale can knock you down, level buildings and cause real and lasting damage. Privacy events in this range should be taken seriously.

Two recent incidents on the lower end of this range would include the Epsilon breach of its customer email addresses and Apple 's storage of the iPhone location-tracking file on users' Macs. The Epsilon breach put people at heightened risk of "spear phishing," where thieves target email addressees at a single company for social engineering purposes. The Apple incident put people at risk if their Macs were lost or stolen and recovered by someone intent on exploiting the knowledge contained in the machine about their daily patterns. These are real risks to a lot of people.

Stolen laptops containing thousands of Social Security numbers and credit-card numbers would also fall in this range. Identity thieves could use this information to make fraudulent transactions that could impact credit scores for years. I'd put the large TJX, Heartland and Sony breaches of millions of credit-card numbers in this category, too, because the total financial damage was extensive, topping $1 billion by some estimates. I wouldn't put these breaches in the top category, however, because the financial damage was ultimately contained and society as a whole was not changed in a lasting way.

Privacy Richter readings 8 to 10

Earthquakes topping 8 on the Richter scale make the all-time list and usually involve widespread destruction and loss of life. Privacy events making this short list would similarly be points of no return for large numbers of people and society as a whole.

DARPA's Total Information Awareness program, proposed in 2002 and defunded by Congress in 2003, could have topped the scale. The massive collection of data about U.S. citizens could have created a perpetual bureaucracy that put at risk our right of due process and protection against unlawful search and seizure. The promulgation of a national ID card could similarly have irreversible and negative effects. The current trend to deploy more and more of TSA's "naked image" machines, even at places outside of airports, could also rank this high because these machines treat people like cattle and reduce their human dignity.

If a corporation such as Google attained as much power as a government agency or exerted unrivaled influence over society, its privacy problems could also rank this high. The data inaccuracies of U.S. credit-reporting agencies in the 1960s -- which led to errant denials of credit and ultimately to the 1970 Fair Credit Reporting Act -- would be a candidate for a privacy Richter 8 rating.

So how serious is the Google policy change? By the sound of the running commentary, this is the worst thing for privacy that's happened so far this year.

The French privacy regulator, the Commission nationale de l'informatique et des liberts (CNIL), issued a critical statement this week. The CNIL claimed that "trained privacy professionals" could not deduce from the new consolidated privacy policy exactly what Google would now be doing with users' data.

For their part, 37 U.S. state attorneys general sent Google CEO Larry Page a sharp letter last week. (I don't think they Gmailed it.) They listed several problems they had with the policy change, which they say amounts to an "invasion of privacy." Their overall concern was that Google consumers such as Android phone users and government agency customers of Google Docs have no real choice to opt out of the change.

A related class-action lawsuit alleges that Google has violated the Wiretap Act, has been unjustly enriched and has intruded upon the seclusion of the users.

This is a lot of heat. I can't remember a privacy policy change that generated this much controversy.

What's the worst-case scenario here? Google amasses a detailed profile about each one of us who continues to use its mostly free products. It uses that information to deliver strangely relevant ads to us. Potentially, that information later on gets breached, sold or subpoenaed by the federal government.

When I look at the privacy Richter scale, the current change ranks at a 3. Larry Page's company will weather this change. I don't see irreparable or lasting harm or loss of liberty. If you don't like Google, use Bing. Don't watch weird things on YouTube. You shouldn't be sending confidential things through Gmail in the first place. You knew Google was the big data hound when you bought your Android phone. So get an iPhone. And be thankful Google is not a North Korean company. It actually does not share everything with the government.

A 3 ranking doesn't mean this isn't an important development. An external disclosure of Google's growing farm of data could easily make the second tier of the privacy Richter scale. Google now has a growing accountability to keep its data controlled within its own enterprise and to resist governmental intrusion into that data.

So the next time you see privacy in the headlines, ask these questions: Who is harmed? Is liberty or dignity reduced? And see where it measures up on the privacy Richter scale.

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