July 16, 2018

How Much Does Google Know About Me?

Several years ago, Americans became concerned that privacy on the Internet was being compromised. The issue at hand involved an increasing amount of personal data that was being collected on individuals using online search engines like Google and Yahoo. This large body of available information had drawn the attention of the Homeland Security Agency who had been charged with the job of protecting the country against potential sleeper cells of terrorism.

The story came to national attention when government agencies began to demand access to the search records of all users of the major search engines.  At that point, the news media picked up the story, and many American citizens who depend daily on search engines for both personal and business research began to get a “big brother is watching” feeling.

It was a complicated situation.  Many Americans acknowledged that the government needed to have the ability to ferret out and put a stop to security risks that might result in another catastrophe like September 11th, 2001.  On the other hands, Americans have traditionally been tremendously protective of their liberties, privacy and their fundamental right to be left alone by the government.

What stood out to many during that struggle was Google’s courageous resistance against what was considered an undue invasion of privacy of their users. Although time showed that the Homeland Security Agency had no intention of becoming “big brother” and was simply researching how to use statistical data to find terrorist patterns in search engine usage, many remember this: Yahoo and others knuckled under pressure quickly, while it was Google who stood up in the name of protecting user information instead of immediately turning it over to Uncle Sam.

This position reflected Google’s long established business practice — to be protective of the data it collects from the users of its search tools.  That protective nature has worked to build a confidence in consumers that Google is a safe tool. As the dominant search engine in the industry, Google does have at its disposal a plethora of personal information on the millions of people who use its search tools.

Proprietary information collected by Google (and other search engines) as users browse the Internet speak volumes about individual interests, religious views, political affiliations and vocation.  Powerful analytical tools take these vast data bases of search information and translate them into profiles that would be of great interest to governments as well as marketers who could target specific populations for sales.

For Google, such information has immeasurable value as the search engines fine-tune their data. Conclusions can be drawn that indicate if search tools are working well and how the logarithmic formulas that drive those tools can be adjusted to be more in line with the Internet audience in cyberspace.  Such research will allow Google to further secure their dominant position as they make their toolset even more capable of staying at the front of the pack.

A conclusion to be drawn from this story is that Google’s protective posture regarding its massive database of search information served their purposes extremely well.  For successfully keeping this gigantic store of very specific data secure and proprietary, Google today maintains a trade secret of tremendous value that will enable them to maintain their market superiority for many years to come.

It can be argued that this represents a case of market needs serving the public’s good well.  For if Google jealously guards the public’s search information so that only it can benefit from such knowledge, they in turn protect the privacy of American citizens from the prying eyes of government agencies, hackers, marketing campaigns and even terrorists who would use that information for insidious purposes.

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