Is Google Sucking the Life Out of Your Identity? Are They Alone?

balloon-sad-faceIn "Can Google be Trusted to Do No Evil?", I talked about how Google+ provided a hub by which users could be tied to their websites, content, other users, employers, or locations... virtually any entity, with any attribute.

I also pointed out that the amount of information that's available on most of us that frequent the Internet is immense. The sparse tidbits we share on various social media platforms and in our user profiles is often enough to fill an impressive dossier, even when we're extremely cautious and protective of our information.

Six Degrees

The Six Degrees of Separation is very real - I've seen it proven time after time. I imagine there must be some obscure cases in which more than six levels of separation apply, but it would almost certainly require that at least one party be a member of a reclusive aboriginal tribe. Possibly both. On separate continents.

For the denizens of the ether jungle, however, most of us would find ourselves separated by only two or three levels, possibly four, worldwide. As an example, I'm a virtual nobody, but I'm separated from Tim Berners-Lee, Dolly Parton and Barack Obama by only one level. Scary for them, I'm sure. I'd hazard a guess that four connection points could connect me to the Pope. Now that'sscary!

Connecting the Dots

dotsIf you recognize how much online information exists on you, although meaningless tidbits when viewed individually, you can see that when compiled, they can provide a fairly comprehensive profile. Put that together with the network of acquaintances and inter-entity relationships connected to you, and you'll realize how imaginary your sense of online privacy is.

Google+ was designed to connect all those dots. It was never intended to be a Facebook-killer. It was never intended to be a social media platform. It is simply intended to be a hub – the focal point of all your connected dots.

At first glance, one might think that Google found this to be a powerful tool to assist in building out its Knowledge Graph. While it certainly can contribute to their Graph, that's merely a collateral benefit. It certainly helps them harvest the data upon which their advertising juggernaut feeds. That alone would have been sufficient motivation for creating such a connection hub.

But that, too, is merely a collateral benefit. It provides the ROI justification on paper, but it's not the primary purpose.

Disclaimer: I wear no tinfoil. I don't see conspiracies lurking behind every door. Nor do I claim that Google is out to rule the world. I'm just disturbed by some developments I'm seeing, and their potential for disaster.

What's the True Motivation for Google+?

google-services-plus-youThis part necessarily is based upon some level of conjecture. Only a handful of people really know if it's close to correct, and since they are either on the board at Google or in Washington, D.C., I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for clarification.

The Internet is touted by many to be, of necessity, free and open – invulnerable to tampering, censorship, or control by any single entity. That's a wonderful goal, and one I'd love to see preserved. But that's me, from my viewpoint. There are others that have a decidedly different worldview.

Many in Washington, for instance, praised the benefits of Twitter during the Arab Spring uprisings. They've recognized the value of the Internet in making knowledge available to students, doctors, and scientists around the world who might otherwise have been left in the dark. They've even lauded the ability to communicate instantaneously around the world. Soldiers and family members can video-chat, companies can collaborate and experts can render much needed assistance, all without geographic constraints.

Few would argue that such things are anything less than marvelous additions to our societies. They certainly added another facet to globalism. When oppressed people are able to effectively make their voices heard and their actions felt, in the interest of freedom... that's marvelous indeed, right?

Anonymity – Blessing or Bain?

Unless, of course, your viewpoint is that of a government official responsible for controlling the unruly masses in the Middle East or North Africa. Then, it becomes a threat. Especially if the tweets and IMs remain anonymous.

Anonymity is threatening to governments. Particularly if the government is unpopular.

For those of us who make our living on the 'Net, anonymity is no picnic, either. We can't follow up, close a deal or upsell to a shadow.

Strangely enough, that's not a problem for Google. They've managed to harvest enough information, track enough movement and apply both on a real-time basis, that even if you believe in the law of gravity and your ability to "sign out" with equal faith, they can still hit you with targeted ads, anywhere, anytime.

I don't use Chrome, I have a Gmail account only out of necessity, almost never using it, and I often sign out of Google when working on my clients' sites. Often, I'll forget to sign in again until much later, when I need to for some reason. Yet, while signed out, I still find myself targeted by ads for sites I visited when I was signed in, just as once I'm signed in, I find myself being targeted by ads for sites I have only visited, signed out. Go figure!

But come on... if Google Analytics can give you all the information on a signed-out user that visited your site, do you really think they can't put that same information to use for their purposes?

Face it, folks... there is no "signed out" anymore. We can be identified by our IP address, our computer name, our phone's IMEI code... that's only a few of the unique identifiers we're all tied to.

With Google's Knowledge Graph, Wikipedia's Wikidata, and Wolfram|Alpha's database (that supports Siri), the efforts to make the world understandable to machines are gradually fulfilling another function: making information on entities and everything about them instantaneously available.

The Keys to the Kingdom

key-to-the-kingdomNow that Google has been named one of the first three officially credentialed identity providers (along with PayPal and Equifax), there may be a new sheriff in town – at least a new deputy. Since the function of an identity provider under the auspices of NSTIC (National Strategy For Trusted Identities In Cyberspace) is curiously unfettered by such niceties as any sort of regulation, Google can now store essentially any and all data it can harvest.

There's no longer any need to ensure that no PII (personal identity information) is stored. On the contrary, Google wouldn't very well be able to do their job as an identity provider without it, would they?

Presumably, they'll only share the minimum information necessary with requesting entities, also presumably, only online. Although, given that this authority was (indirectly) bestowed upon them by the government, it might be a little awkward if they were to refuse to share it with them, when asked. The Justice Department certainly hasn't been bashful about asking various search engines and social media platforms to share privileged data before – even without a warrant.

With no laws or regulations to say how our PII can be harvested, stored, accessed, shared or validated, the whole situation seems ripe for disaster. But since it will save us from having to type in a password when we access an account online, my guess is that the average netizen will just roll over and accept it.

After all, it's just so much easier to let others do your thinking for you!