Google Runs Your Life

googleappsGoogle has a ton of great applications that can make your life easier. But Quentin Hardy wonders if we’re going to far in trusting our information to one company.

Your day begins with a wake-up call from your Google Android phone. As you run to the shower, you hit Google News and check headlines, then Gmail. Your first appointment of the day has been moved to a new location; Google Maps will direct you there. Quickly update your expense report–including the printout of that sales presentation using, say, Google Template–and shoot them to the back office in India (in Hindi, if you prefer, with Google Translate). Your boss wants to discuss your group’s contributions to some marketing documents? Lean on Google Groups. You’re not even out the door yet. You have the rest of the day to search for work-critical information on the Web while you’re at the office–to say nothing of snatching a few moments to download a game, check stock prices, organize your medical records, share photos and pick a restaurant and movie for the evening. How convenient.

And a little creepy, perhaps. Google wants to own your every waking minute online–at home, while in transit, at your workplace, wherever you happen to be. It makes connectivity oh so easy, on a desktop, laptop or mobile phone. How much easier via a little-known business called Google Applications that allows us to instantly share Google calendars, spreadsheets, memos, reports, e-mail, corporate blogs, presentations and more–much, much more–by storing them in Google’s enormous data centers. These bundled office-suite services make Google money on subscriptions, but they are also something of a Trojan horse to pull more people onto the Internet so that Google can make even more money from ads. By expanding what kinds of information people organize and share, as well as what they search, Google makes users ever more dependent on it to get through the day. But just who is in control here?

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Let Google own your digital life, every last bit of it? Such a life would have its attractions. No longer would your data be inconveniently out of reach–your boss has an urgent question when you’re home, but the spreadsheet with the answer is at the office. No longer would you get pestered with notices on your PC to download an operating system upgrade or extend the subscription on your Web security. You wouldn’t worry much if your computer got stolen or fell into the bathtub; with a low price and little personal data on the machine, these netbooks may be like office furniture–if one breaks, you toss it aside and pull another from the closet. Your employer might be thrilled to move its data processing into the cloud (see related story, “Virtualization Versus the Cloud”), since that would mean savings on computer support staff.

Possible downside: You have to have complete and total faith in the company running the data repository. What if someone hacked in and got your tax return?

Obviously, putting all your information in one virtual basket makes it easier to get to — for both you and a malicious hacker.  But, as we’ve seen increasingly over the last few years, your information isn’t safe, anywhere.  Top secret government agencies get data stolen.  So do global telecommunications firms.  Is Google invulnerable?  I don’t see why.

But I’ve nonetheless moved more and more of my life onto their servers over the years.  I own a couple dozen domains, including this one, but haven’t used any of them for email in years.  Even my work email goes directly into my Gmail account.  I use Google Calendar as my chief organizational tool.   We use Google’s Picasa to store and share family photos.  I still don’t use Google Docs all that much, as I need some of the quirkier features of Microsoft Office (notably, Track Changes) but would do so in a heartbeat if it suddenly became more convenient.  Google’s Chrome browser still isn’t as good as Firefox but I hope they keep trying to get it right.

Do I worry about Google’s growing power?  Absolutely.  If nothing else, as a website owner, I’m keenly aware of how powerful their search algorithms and decisions as to whom to include/exclude from Google News are in making and breaking sites.  And their domination of the online ad space gives them enormous leverage, too.

But the fact of the matter is that the incremental increase in security I’d gain from disaggregating my online activities isn’t worth the rather significant loss of convenience and performance I’d have to trade.   Google’s power comes from the fact that its products are quite good and often free to the end user.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. You know, it has always been technically possible to give every computer user in the world a unique ID. It certainly wouldn’t take much storage. 32 bits, the standard integer size over the last say 20 years, holds 2^32 or about 4 billion. 64 bits, our verging standard, holds 2^64 or however many bazillion.

    It is kind of an accident of history that we don’t have unique IDs. Computers started small and unnetworked. It wasn’t really a big worry to distinguish this John for that John. No one cared. As on-line services grew they didn’t worry about it either, just handing out their unused names or numbers to customers. One person could snag john@aol.com and someone else could snag john@msn.com. There was no agency to insure that they were the same, or different. They certainly didn’t have to map back to your college account.

    If we think about all the accounts people accumulate and abandon over the years, we could think of them as split versions of themselves. I’m fine with that.

    Advertising companies and most mechanisms of online commerce are fine with it as well. They just deal with you as a person of the moment. If john@aol.com has been shopping for fishing gear at overstock.com, then he will probably see fishing gear in the overstock side-box at outsidethebeltway.com. The seemingly separate sites are connected (by shared providers). I can accept that (not so much “fine” with it).

    The online commerce agencies do remember everything though, and you can pretty much assume that if you ever make an on-line purchase associated with an email account, then you’ve just tagged that account with your real-id. Buy that fishing gear you’ve tied the information network together.

    That may be fine. You may feel comfortable going forward into the cloud age with something that is becoming, de-facto, a little more like a universal ID.

    I prefer to split it a little, for a little pseudo anonymity. The email account I comment with at some random blog should not be, for instance, the account my broker knows. Google is nice because, so far at least, they let us have multiple accounts and don’t make us tie them to a real world ID.

    I will probably abandon this ID because it is a little too pseudo and not enough anonymous. YMMV.

  2. JKB says:

    Well, you can worry about Google’s power but you should worry that you have no expectation of privacy. Since the server owner can access the information on their server, it isn’t private except by their choice. By storing your info on Google or any other server, it is there for the government to access. Do you really think that Google would impede a government request? By putting everything on Google, you do however make it easier on the investigator. One call and if need be only one corporate lawyer to deal with. It isn’t a major problem unless you discussed something less than legal in your email.

  3. Michael says:

    If you’re concerned about privacy in Gmail at least, you can use FireGPG (http://getfiregpg.org/) to encrypt all your messages.