ONLINE PRIVACY and the protection of personal data has been a big issue for Digital Rights Ireland but it's often difficult to get anyone interested in these things unless they become mainstream. Google has put a spotlight on both issues by the way the search giant seems to relegate privacy to the corporate imperative of gathering as much shareable and searchable content as possible. I started sharing items through Google Reader last week because I wanted to compare that method of knowledge networking to links shared through del.icio.us and something unexpected happened. Anyone who I had ever contacted through Google Talk got adivsed about my shared items. This could create problems if you were annotating sensitive items as "shared" for a close-knit network.
So if you had shared items about stun guns, mermaids, and iPorn, anyone in your office network who used Google Talk to connect with you would automatically get these items pushed to their Google Reader as well. People routinely stop by my blog and find these items but it's hard to fathom how any of them relate to most day jobs. Likewise, if I had shared several dozen job advertisements that flow through my Google Reader, the HR director who has contacted me through Google Talk would see those items and possibly deduce that I was a flight risk.
These are not big deals for Google the corporation. In the mind of Google, it's share and learn data that might elevate the relevance of online advertisements. I don't like that nonchalant attitude and I suspect a lot of people less sophisticated than myself might be bothered by the prospect of co-workers, abusive spouses, or rowdy teenagers looking at a stash of Google Reader items because you can often deduce what's next by a pattern of items read and shared.
Online privacy needs to be carefully protected. The first steps down that road of protecting those rights to digital privacy happen when millions of people's privacy is treated in a second class fashion. Many governments are doing this now but even alert citizens often have to see an example of the way people can be hurt by careless disregard for reading patterns, shared bookmarks and connected thoughts.
Google Reader is only one of the electronic services that became part of the way thousands of people collect ideas and collaborate online. You entire online search history often remains intact at company routers. Anyone with access to those electronic gateways or any law enforcement official with a search warrant could look at those search logs and poke around in Google e-mails, see the recent online shopping patterns, see where you looked when zooming around online maps, and poke around your Facebook groups for those special photos that have a viral appeal.
Google, with more than half of all the search requests made by Irish viewers, sits on top of a mother lode of behavioural data. Google, a brand that has become a verb, now delivers information people trust. Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center says that the suite of Google products now being freely (and casually) used by millions of people reveals “a lot of personal information about individuals' Internet habits--e-mail, saving search history, images, and personal information.”
Your reading patterns, online affiliations and search history reveals a pattern of beliefs and perhaps your medical problems. By exposing these points to the outside world, you permit Google to define who you are. Therein lies the danger.
Updated from Google Blog -- "How to manage your shared items"