Privacy and Protection and Google (Oh My!)

1 Nov

I’m an avid Google fan. I love Gmail, I use Google docs all the time, and if something isn’t on my Google calendar, it doesn’t exist. So when I stumbled across the article Hacked! by James Fallows at The Atlantic, I had to know – is it safe to trust my information to “the cloud”?

You see, hackers attacked Fallows’s wife Deb’s Gmail account, and not only did they send out one of those “I’m travelling overseas. I was robbed. Send money.” emails we’re all trained to ignore, they erased ALL of her past emails. This is terrifying; I regularly search my Gmail for crucial information and to check that I’ve done things like pay my rent, submit my homework, and email hilarious cat photos to people who might enjoy them. Very important stuff.

Fallows goes on to discuss what happened to Deb’s emails, the state of password security today, his interviews with Google staffers who consistently deal with this problem, and the steps that can be taken should it happen to you (or to prevent it!). As a librarian who is likely to have public internet terminals on my hands, this is all very useful and I’m taking some of these lessons to heart. Luckily, Fallows says, “we’re living through an awkward stage in our current reliance on passwords” and this too shall pass.

What really caught my attention was a passage towards the bottom of the article that fit perfectly with a class lecture on privacy, free speech, and intellectual freedom yesterday morning. Talking about his and Deb’s reaction to Google’s initial response to their conundrum, Fallows says:

How could big tech companies offer cloud services to hundreds of millions of people without better guarding their data against catastrophic loss? On Google’s side, one explanation involved complexities of the law. My wife and I might think that Google had a “duty” to be able to find her messages after some hacker had erased them. But according to Google’s legal department, its higher and more stringent duty is to ensure that messages are erased, if whoever is in charge of an account wants them gone. Political activists in repressive countries, people who for whatever reason (@RepWeiner) want parts of their electronic correspondence to disappear—they are the ones Google, like other e‑mail providers, had in mind in designing a system optimized for deletion rather than recovery.

This tension between privacy (the ability to delete records if one chooses) and intellectual freedom (stretching it a bit here…access to information one needs and desires) is one tension I will continually face in this profession. Thinking ahead to a time where I’m working with databases and other content providers, there’s often a tension between the vendor’s information collection (Who accesses these articles? What are they searching for? How many searches before they choose a record?) and the privacy of the patrons, who may wish to keep that information hidden.

This line gets blurred even further when there’s a “my research” button at the top of the page which allows the user to log in, create a profile, and save their search. Issues of convenience vs. privacy seem to be more and more at the fore, as digital natives (i.e. the young ‘uns) reach adulthood. For many young adults, creating an account for each page (shopping, research, social) is second nature. As a librarian, what will my role be in continuing to protect privacy when it’s not clear that patrons care about being protected?

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One Response to “Privacy and Protection and Google (Oh My!)”

  1. Dana November 7, 2011 at 12:27 am #

    I, too, have a reliance on Google and I know that tons of companies and nonprofits use things like Google Docs religiously. There’s this thought that it’ll just always be there and can’t ever go away. Then other companies like salesforce come in saying that they can keep your information safe forever in the cloud. On this point, I have a theory I’m still working out that people just dump into the cloud instead of neatly organize, haha.

    Another thing about our reliance on passwords and logins with Web 2.0 is how many passwords we are supposed to make! And I definitely think it’s a well-known secret that nearly everyone uses the same password for everything they can, which is a bit scary, especially for public use of computers.

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