Why Privacy Won't Matter; Google, Yahoo and Microsoft Desperately Want to Know Every Last Thing about What You Do, Say and Buy. Here's How They'll Do It-And Why We'll Let Them

Article excerpt

Byline: David H. Freedman

A friend takes your picture with her cell phone, and puts the phone back in her purse. But the gadget isn't dormant. It gets to work figuring out who you are, and sends that information, along with your precise location, to an organization that adds the data to a file it keeps on where you go and who you hang out with, as well as other things. The organization then charges money to help others who want to reach you, and even notifies certain people nearby of your presence.

Who is this shadowy organization? It's Google--as well as Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL, among others. None of these companies are tracking you using cell-phone photos today, of course; that capability is still at least a few years off. But they are following you in other ways, and profiting from doing so. And they're gearing up to keep a much closer eye on all of us, so that within five years these and other firms will routinely track our movements, friends, interests, purchases and correspondence--then make money by helping marketers take advantage of the information.

These companies' brash plans are pushing us toward a thorny choice that will determine the future of computing. Google and other Web-oriented, information-service giants are determined to build a breathtaking array of services based on your personal information, and they're betting you'll be willing to share it with them in order for you to reap the benefits. But if we cooperate and let them in on the details of our lives, we'll lose much of our privacy, and possibly a lot more.

When the files on us are so detailed that it becomes easy to document our political beliefs, love lives, embarrassing habits and petty crimes, we risk becoming routinely persecuted for them--or, even worse, afraid to engage in any behavior that others might find controversial. "What's going to be taking place over the next 10 years in the privacy space will have profound implications for how we relate to each other socially, economically and politically," says Jerry Kang, a UCLA law professor who studies the impact of technology on privacy. "We shouldn't be too quick to turn personal data over to market forces."

A privacy backlash, however, would stifle these potentially revolutionary services before they get off the ground--and leave the computer industry's biggest plan for growth in tatters. That may be just what some people want. The U.S. Congress is considering four bills that would make it illegal for companies to collect and share information online or through cell phones about people without clearer warning and permission. These sorts of restrictions are already in effect throughout much of Europe, thanks in part to European Union directives on privacy and electronic communications passed in 2002 and 2003.

These efforts seem doomed to fail eventually: a new generation of consumers, now teenagers, are growing up without any qualms about giving away every shred of information about themselves online. The good news is that there's no reason to choose between technology and privacy. New technologies are emerging that can doctor our data so that companies know just enough about us to ply us with customized services, while preventing them from getting a clear picture of our private lives. The question is again one of trust: in this case, whether people will come to trust the companies that are trying to build these new technologies.

What Google and its competitors plan to dangle before us is in essence the ultimate search engine: one that finds information based not just on what you type in, but on what you really want, and that feeds it to you wherever and whenever it's most useful. Keyword searching is a blunt instrument when you want to find the cheapest way to send flowers to a friend in Cleveland, to know which of the movies opening near you next week will be your kind of flick, to find people in your town who share your interests in boating and beekeeping. …