On April 1, 2004, Google announced its new and capacious Gmail service and said it would serve up contextual ads, a move so radical that people initially thought it was an April Fool's joke. It wasn't.
At the time, more than 30 civil liberties groups urged Google to suspend Gmail, arguing that targeting people with ads in their e-mail was setting a dangerous precedent and letting the "proverbial genie out of the bottle" for privacy abuse. California Sen. Liz Figueroa drafted a bill aimed at restricting this use of Gmail (later dropped), privacy groups asked the California Attorney General to investigate whether Google was violating wiretapping laws, and one Google critic created the "Gmail is too creepy" site.
Fast-forward eight years -- 425 million Gmail people are using the service, and contextual ads are regularly ignored in e-mails on Yahoo and other free e-mail services. It's not that people are now apathetic about, for example, seeing a Viagra ad when they are asking someone for a date. It's that people do not seem to feel threatened by the notion that Google's all-seeing computers are eyeballing the messages and serving up ads. We see the ads everyday in our e-mails, next to our Web searches, and on the most popular sites -- they have become part of the accepted Internet landscape.
"Either we are the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water and we aren't recognizing that we are being boiled, or we understand we're trading in some of our privacy for convenience," said Hanson Hosein, director of the Master of Communication in Digital Media at the University of Washington. "We are well aware of what Google does with this information, but we recognize that we are getting a great service. So far, Google has been relatively benign, so people are thinking either Google will get you or Facebook will get you."
--Hanson Hosein, University of Washington
"In the digital personal assistant world, it's not human-like qualities -- a.k.a the uncanny valley -- that makes these programs creepy, but rather the kind of information they have," Rebecca Greenfield wrote in The Atlantic Wire. "That Google Now knows about us in a more than Google-search-able way makes the service feel like an intrusion."
Another Google product that has people scratching their heads -- and not necessarily in a good way -- comes from its Project Glass. While it holds much promise in providing truly hands-free Internet access, it also will allow people to turn the lens around and capture everything they see on video, as well as put distracting ads literally in front of the eyes. Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University who specializes in privacy, even jokes about the eventual need for a "Do Not See" effort akin to the Do Not Track movement for cookies in browsers.
Google executives were not available to be interviewed for this article, but a spokesman provided this statement: "Technology evolves quickly. We're constantly upgrading in order to meet -- and anticipate -- people's expectations for how Google can improve their lives. For us, a better user experience goes hand in hand with the highest standards of privacy and security. We provide useful tools so users can control their settings and choose how Google works best for them."
Jeff Jarvis, author of "Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live," suggests that the word "creepy" is too easily bandied around by what he calls the "privacy industrial regulatory complex."
"Define 'creepy.' It really means nothing. It's something unfamiliar that we are getting used to," Jarvis said. "When it first was introduced people were very much creeped out about the Kodak camera. It's natural with a new technology."
There are different types of privacy issues that pose varying levels of concern. For instance, there are inadvertent privacy gaffes, such as when Google+ Events was configured initially to put events on peoples' calendars that they had merely been invited to instead of just those that they had accepted. The company was quick to fix this problem and stop the calendar spam. That's definitely not creepy, just unfortunate.
Then there is the privacy debate prompted by a company openly using consumer data, such as Gmail ads, which may initially seem creepy to many people but becomes more acceptable over time as people get used to it.
Another type of privacy issue arises when a company is found to be sharing data with others without explicit consumer consent, as was the case with Google Street View. People caught in compromising positions by the roving street cameras can definitely play the creepy card and Google will remove the images, but unless you live in Germany, where opposition was so strong to the Street View service that Google abandoned it there, you will have to live with images of your front porch being accessible on Google Maps. (License plates and faces are blurred, however.)
--Jeff Jarvis, author, "Public Parts"
Google's moral compass is steered to a large degree by its mantra of "don't be evil." "They believe their intentions are pure and therefore privacy problems are not a problem because they don't intend to harm people," said Chris Hoofnagle, director of Information Privacy Programs at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology. But that kind of thinking can be dangerous because it doesn't factor in things like hackers who can steal data and governments who can force well-intentioned companies to hand over user information or comply with wiretap orders, or even economic realities that might compel a change in business strategy.
'Social media has softened us up'
And just because a controversy has died down doesn't mean the threat is gone. "The fact that things that horrified consumers at one point in time and now many consumers seem to accept it without a second thought, that is probably true for a certain percentage of the population," with Google products, said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, which was among the groups opposing ads in Gmail. "But just because we use it everyday doesn't make the privacy invasion any less."
People in general have short memories. And they have an increasing dependence on the Internet as an integral part of their social lives. Google, Facebook, and others are creating new ways of sharing our lives online via social media and mobile devices, for free and subsidized by ads. It's a self-perpetuating system; the more people use the online services and share, the more data the sites have to use in their ad targeting. People will readily complain about cookies tracking them without knowing who they are while they post racy photos of themselves online that have GPS metadata attached and provide their location.
"Social media has softened us up essentially, so privacy concerns are ratcheted down," said Hosein. "But if the government tracked us that way, we'd probably go to war over that. We give [the data] to these companies because we think we're getting something valuable."
Americans seem to be particularly forgiving, and younger people who don't remember a world without targeted ads and mobile phones are less threatened by potential privacy risks from companies making it easier for them to exchange information and buy things.
"Americans have a long history of complaining about privacy, but happily surrendering it in order to save a few cents or in order to make things more convenient," said Paul Saffo, managing director of foresight at Discern Analytics and a professor of forecasting at Stanford University. "With the Europeans, it's still in their memory [after World War II] that it could cost you your life if your name is on the wrong list."
Many Americans feel safe because they have "done nothing wrong," Saffo said. "But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of how governments use databases."
If you don't like a company's privacy practices, don't use the service, Jarvis counters. Hosein does just this. He has an Android phone, but disables the geo-location services and avoids Spotify because it broadcasts listening habits on Facebook. He also uses three different browsers when Web surfing to avoid tracking. "Ultimately, it's going to be for us to decide when enough is enough," Hosein said, while acknowledging that incremental steps in the wrong direction can ultimately lead to disaster if we are not careful. "When they [Google, Facebook] do suddenly flip that switch [in taking full advantage of the data they have], we may see they've gone too far."
Pam Dixon, founder of the World Privacy Forum, drafted the letter to Google complaining about the privacy implications of contextual ads in Gmail in 2004 and still has a problem with the service. But she's bothered less by the targeted ads than by the back-end correlation of the different types of user data that Google's various business units collect. And with Google Glass, she worries that users will be invading other peoples' privacy without their consent. "How does this work in society where everything in public can be recorded?" asked Dixon. "We need to jump to the end game and say if the glasses look normal and they record everything, what is it that's important to focus on for consumers? That's what we need to work out now."
Microsoft in its heyday had its share of privacy snafoos and Facebook has had a number of big missteps, such as making changes that overrode user privacy settings or that led to sharing users didn't agree to. But Google is unique in that it has tentacles into so much of our world, from Web search and smartphones to power meters and driverless cars. The company has a history of coming up with things that help revolutionize our lives, and Google Glass will no doubt be one of the company's big projects that touches millions of people every day. The coolness factor on this product in particular is huge, and I suspect that in a few years time I'll be reading my Gmail from my specs when it's convenient, and not from my smartphone.
Google definitely pays a price for being an innovator and the occasional privacy backlash goes with the territory. This scrutiny is a good and necessary thing, of Google and every other company we trust with our precious data if we are to be able to safely use these services. We must also examine our role in protecting our information, and ourselves.
"Google is not the only offender, it's not the worst offender," said Saffo. "Every social media company out there is intentionally or unintentionally shredding peoples' privacy and everyone on the Web is an unwitting accomplice."