Monday, August 9, 2010

Google Will Sell Your Data: Craigs List for Criminals and Terrorists

Google will sell your personal data. Why? Because as growth slows, Google needs the money. The era of (mostly) private internet activity is over. Companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo will collect as much information about users as they can (add Adobe with Flash in the mix) ... and sell the information. They will do this, because there is so much money in doing so. Money from advertisers, money from direct marketers, money even from criminals, other governments, and even NGOs, and terrorist groups. Google's "Street View" troubles where they hacked into user's unsecured Wi-Fi networks and collected personal information including e-mails and other private data were no accident.

Indeed, Google is likely slower than most (due to size related inertia and lots of cash in the bank) to take advantage of the ability to sell the most personal and private information about people in mass quantities. This development marks the beginning of the mass-identity theft movement, so to speak, and is likely to spread to sites like Hulu, or even Netflix, Amazon, Wal-Mart, and other mass market service and retail providers. In turn, it is likely to create among ordinary users a desire to avoid constant surveillance. Through anonymizers, cookie filtering, even MAC address spoofing and surfing over free Wi-Fi spots. The sites and service/retail/entertainment providers that survive will ironically mostly do so by not selling their user's information but by providing either useful news or entertainment, like Hulu's free service or say, various news sites (DrudgeReport being the model), analysis and/or links like the or City Journal sites, specialized reporting (Blackfive or Slashdot for military or computer affairs respectively), or value added service, such as Amazon's site, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times.

As the article in the Journal points out, Google is experiencing slowing growth, and increased competition for user time and users period, from social networks like Twitter and especially, Facebook. The latter being notorious for collecting massive amounts of user data ... and selling it. To almost any comer. The pressure to keep earnings up (and the money rolling in) is going to be too big for Google to ignore. "Don't be evil," is weak sauce compared to all the potential money. Controls are likely to be weak, too, in selling user data, which is really only valuable when ALL information about a particular user is collected and correlated.

Anonymous browsing information about searches, email content, Google Docs content, Google Mobile content, and more, all disconnected, is worth far less to everyone than specific information about a person, from all sources, correlated and ready for analysis. Ford, GM, Chrysler, Honda, Toyota, Kia, Hyundai, Nissan, Mazda, and Subaru would all like detailed info about each person searching for cars, including price points searched for (say on, any ads viewed and particularly, clicked on, yearly salary, zip code, phone numbers, places visited (Starbucks vs. McDonalds), taxes paid, and anything else that allows "mass personalization" of ads targeted directly to the person in question. Or avoids targeting the person in the first place (because of disqualifiers like low income, or existing other-brand preference, and the like). The ad might not sit on a webpage a user visits, or a Google Email ad inside an email, either. It could be delivered to a smart phone, or sent as a text message, or even be the subject of a "mass customized" robo-call to phones. Already Wal-Mart and other retailers are experimenting with "coupons" sent to users smart phones — in the store!

That of course is merely the benign usage of sold information. Governments, including those abroad, would be intensely interested in ordinary users information, the better to collect taxes, or fines, for all sorts of activities. Indeed the tax and fine angle is likely to predominate, but there is no particular reason that say, Iran, could not collect information about masses of users who viewed "anti-Islam" or "anti-Jihad" material — and use that to issue international arrest warrants that many governments (particularly in Europe with large Muslim voting blocs and populations) would honor. This would be particularly popular with failing regimes wanting to either create a shake-down of "anti-Muslim Westerners" or real punishment, both likely hugely popular among their Muslim subjects and citizens.

Gangsters too, are likely to want that information. Blackmail, identity theft, or both, could be lucrative sidelines with little risk for those based outside nations with a strong civil society and police enforcement. Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, much of Latin America, would be likely home bases for such action. Failing states such as North Korea and Pakistan would be likely to get in on the action by officials. Imagine the blackmail possibilities of anyone visiting porn or other socially unacceptable sites linked to actual, real identities, and demands for payoffs else specific contacts are notified about said online activity. With the ability to mass call, i.e. "robo calls" this could be quite lucrative, say blackmail of 5 million people at $400 a pop, is $2 billion. Computers enable crooks too, particularly the imaginative and organized. Since half the Third World governments fall into the category of "organized crooks" this is a real threat.

Nor would the fundraising be limited to say, the Zetas or Kim Jong-Il. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are always short of funds, and would also like to make statements. Blackmail, or simple identity theft and fraud, on a massive scale, combined perhaps with explicit "examples" distributed to free-lancers over the internet, the equivalent of a "Craigs List for Terrorists" has the ability to turn AQ's fairly distributed nature after the US response to 9/11 into a huge plus. Glenn Reynold's "Army of Davids" in a way he never anticipated.

The impact of Google selling user data is not individual stalking, or anything like that. It is opening up the biggest storehouse of user-data on the planet, a more comprehensive and LARGER database than any compiled by the Stasi or other Communist-era, early computer age secret police, that is likely to bring the downside of globalization home personally to every user of the internet.

In NBC's "Life" the lead character (played fantastically by "Band of Brothers" lead Damien Lewis) mused that "everything is connected" (via Zen and plotlines). Now, everything is actually connected. North Korean secret police, Zeta gangsters, Pakistani ISI agents, Al Qaeda, and the US and UK governments can all peer into great masses of user data (the Chinese likely already have peered into Google's vast user database given their alleged hacking of Google's servers and code). Use the data to find tax cheats, people who did not sort their rubbish in wheelie bins, or five million potential blackmail or identity theft victims. With the release this week of "Max Headroom" on DVD, "fifteen minutes into the future" looks in some ways much like, well, Max Headroom. Not a Blade Runner, dark and bleak, recycled Road-Warrior technology, but no escape from constant surveillance and an "always on" media presence. Its not Television (in "Max Headroom" it was illegal to install an "off-switch" on TVs) but the internet. People are unlikely to go to the extremes of "erasing" themselves from databases like the character "Blank Reg" ("Remember when we told you there was no future? Well, this is it." — the best line ever on TV) and in fact, they cannot. Because Google will never let them.

But the internet is likely to become rapidly a two-tiered system. A crummy, crime-ridden place much like Network 23's dystopia in "Max Headroom" where no one has privacy or security, and "gated communities" where folks pay to be secure. Google, a company that explicitly sought to change the world for the better, is likely to be one of the main drivers towards a future that digitally at least, will resemble "Max Headroom."


Samson said...

I'm surprised no one has commented yet. Whiskey, this might be one of the posts of the year, anywhere, because of the import of the topic. You're completely right: trusting in human benevolence over the long haul is a fool's gambit, and yes, of course, Google will eventually sell our data, or “misplace” it, or whatever. Sooner or later.

What can we learn from this? I'm reluctant to want to say so, but I have to think that here's one lesson: each and every one of us must immediately assume that we are operating under non-anonymous conditions. You might be anonymous at this moment, in the sense that no one has put any effort into figuring out who you are, but if you maintain a blog in which you write about anything controversial, prepare yourself now for the possibility that you may be confronted publicly someday with what you've written. This is particularly vital for anyone who thinks they may someday be involved in real-world politics or social institutions or whatnot.

I think there may be good consequences to this as well as bad. For instance, if it's going to become possible to blackmail folks for porn use, well, maybe there will be less porn use. One of the biggest reasons for our current social decline is the disappearance of social shame as a motivating force and if that sort of shaming – especially of females – were to reappear, that might be beneficial. The bad news, of course, is that anonymity has allowed the wild and healthy proliferation of dialogue on all sorts of topics, especially politically incorrect ones, and it'd be terrible if that were squelched.

So what do you think? Am I paranoid - do you think I'm off the mark in suggesting that absolutely all of us ought to be really, really careful about what we say from here on out? If blackmail via Google-derived “private” info becomes routine, who will be at risk? Only really bad people, or will it be everyone right down to average joes who blog about politically incorrect aspects of sociology? What about politics? Yeah, politicians at the national level will be vulnerable to blackmail – they always are. What about someone running for the local schoolboard – can (or will) Google kibosh that?

Whiskey said...

Samson -- thanks for the kind words. I have of course known for a long time that anyone who really wanted to, could figure out who I am. For some time, I've stopped caring. I don't think it matters much anymore. Being who you are, straight no chaser, is easier. It does not require swallowing deeply held beliefs, or what have you. That does not mean of course insulting people needlessly, in social situations.

But yes, Google data *WILL* out pretty much everyone. Personal beliefs, private predilections, foibles, habits, and yes porn usage, exploding through the anonymous internet.

I am not sure though that social shaming will make a *LARGE SCALE* come-back, perhaps merely "outing" of pretty much ever personal habit will lead to the era of no shame/limits. Already TLC is presenting a reality show of four polygamist wives in Utah (the FLDS splinter group). Some of the worst stuff (child porn) may be lessened due to social shaming though and blackmail risk.

Can the PC stuff be enforced by ending anonymity? Probably not. I think PC dogma is falling due to what Ed Driscoll calls "a Rendezvous with Scarcity" (riffing on FDR's Rendezvous with Destiny).

Anonymous said...

Im afraid Google is going to tell the world that I wasted 20 bucks tonight paying for me and a friend to see "Salt" with Angelina Jolie, the stupidest, most unbelievable, ridiculous, impossibly-plotted, mega-turd movie of all time.

BTW---Did you know half the CIA was made up of 30 year old-black men?

Did you know that skinny white women with collagenous lips can jump off freeway bridges onto moving trucks and not break a rib (3 DIFFERENT TIMES!!!!, even from other moving trucks to trucks on lower overpasses?)

Did you know that skinny white women can beat up and kill any number of CIA or Russian spies with their bare hands?

Did you know that there are spy cells all over America that were put there in the late 1980s by the KGB who are just waiting for the order to bring America to its knees?

If you didn't know these things, you need to see "Salt".

I actually thought about some of your posts while watching that movie Whiskey. Angelina Jolie is portrayed as a superhero in the tradition of Superman, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor. She was married and in love with a uber-beta-German-male-who had a doctorate in studying bugs (no shit), with huge eyes, no muscle tone, a child's face, and soft voice (the honestly most-beta guy imagineable). Hollywood really does sell the sexes a pile of steaming horseshit about their roles, proclivities, and abilities.

BTW------------Did you know that "Truth" (the Sailer commenter) is really a gay WHITE male? He is. I seen that on a website that would offend your political feelings, but the hackers there are very smart people and they would indeed know what they are talking about.

Frankly Whiskey, I already assume the government knows what you are doing online and probably has software that checks out folks when they use certain phrases or whatever enough. I know the government probably has a good idea at what political sympathies we all have, and they probably keep an eye on those of us they consider dangerous. I'd keep in mind that blackmail is blackmail however, and if somebody called you on the phone and demanded $500 bucks not to list your name on a website for looking at (free porn), you could notify the police because they were indeed blackmailing you. Im not too worried about that becoming too widespread. THEIR identities will also be compromised in the process for law enforcement.

Anonymous said...

You might be surprised by the implications of TOR and GPG.

Kinuachdrach said...

The end of anonimity might have surprising consequences.

Let's face it -- no-one really cares who most of us are. But there is a minority about whom many of us would like more information. The Political Class.

Just how do lots of people of modest means go to Congress, get modest pay, and end up multi-millionaires? Their tax records, credit card receipts, bank statements, travel, etc. would be of great interest.

What about our County Commissioners, and the Head of the School Board?

How many people would pay a fee to see Barack Obama's long-from birth certificate, or even his college transcripts?

The people who should be sweating about data selling are not you & me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Whiskey,
Pretty ironic how Google's motto is "Don't be evil", but I guess selling consumers information doesn't count to them. What interests me is Youtube's new policy which requires it's users to link their Youtube and google accounts. Will this affect users (like me) privacy? Supposedly Youtube is a different entity from Google,so I am a bit confused as to why this new policy is in effect. I am guessing that it doesn't just have to do with "greater account security" as Youtube says.