Everyone and his Big Brother wants to log your browsing habits, the better to build a profile of who you are and how you live your life—online and off. Search engine companies offer a benefit in return: more relevant search results. The more they know about you, the better they can tailor information to your needs. But you pay a price, whether you know it or not.
Suppose a friendly fellow named Mr. Google turns up at your door. He offers to become your personal assistant, for free. He'll follow you around during waking hours and help you find things. To get to know you better, he'll take notes on where you are (by IP address, wireless access point, etc.), where you plan to go ("flights to Cayman islands," "directions to AA meeting"), what you shop for ("ammunition," "birth control"), what you read ("communist manifesto," "where to hide money"), what you worry about ("symptoms of herpes," "domestic protection order"), and so on. Soon Mr. Google knows a whole lot of your secrets. He stays with you year after year. He keeps his notebooks and files them carefully. And all you have to do is sign a document saying he can share what he knows about you, under vague or undisclosed circumstances, with business partners and government investigators.
Sound good? Read Google's terms of service and its current and coming privacy policies. Think about all the latitude Google gives itself when it says it can mine your information to "develop or improve our services," can share it with "affiliated companies or other trusted businesses," and can hand it over to government or other third parties if Google perceives a risk to "the rights, property or safety of Google, its users or the public." It's not entirely fair to single out Google, since many information companies impose similar legal terms, but Google is the industry leader and invented some of the most intrusive practices.
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