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Last week, Google's Marissa Mayer and Eric Schmidt appeared in separate interviews on the Charlie Rose show, and not surprisingly they spoke in one voice where privacy and trust were concerned.

They both said that when we use online services, we give up privacy in the process. There it is on the table. They are providing the service, and you're providing the information, and should you be concerned about this trade-off, Schmidt says simply: "Trust us."

Um, I don't Think So

I'm a huge fan of Google services. I'm writing this blog post in Google Docs. I used Google Reader to find the idea for this story. I'm in Google services all day every day, but do I trust them with my information? Not completely. I worry a lot about how much information Google has about me and what I'm doing professionally and personally.

Google is also in the advertising business and the two goals of privacy and selling ads are often at odds. The information Google collects on its users is a virtual treasure trove of demographic information about virtually every aspect of our computing lives within the Google family of services.

Will They Ever Use or Share This Information?

Eric Schmidt says that Google would never use this information in a nefarious way because it's not the way his company does business. But times are good for Google even against the backdrop of a very dire economic conditions. What if somewhere down the road, Google found itself in the position that General Motors finds itself today, would they not do whatever is necessary, even sell personal demographic information about users if it meant the difference between surviving and bankruptcy? I'm fairly certain it would abandon its principals in a heart beat because Google has a bigger legal obligation to its shareholders, and in the real world, faced with economic disaster, the moral component that Schmidt hides behind would melt away.

Here's what Schmidt said when asked about using information according to a transcript of the interview on TechCrunch:

Charlie Rose:
So Gmail. Suppose I use Gmail. You guys can see all of any Gmail.

Eric Schmidt:
But we don’t by practice.

Charlie Rose:
Well, yeah, but you know what the argument is about that?

Eric Schmidt:
We have rules, Charlie.

Charlie Rose:
Suppose you didn’t like me.

Eric Schmidt:
Even if we don’t like you, we won’t violate our rules.

Charlie Rose:
Yeah? So what? So you’re saying —
[laughter]
You’re saying trust us? Trust us?

Eric Schmidt:
Yes.

Charlie Rose:
That’s it? We’re not going to sneak a look?

Eric Schmidt:
We do not sneak a look.

And that's just economic pressure. What about legal pressure from an over-zealous district attorney or political pressure from the state or Federal authorities. How much pressure could Google truly withstand before it folded and handed over your information portfolio to government officials? What about a rogue employee who finds dirt on someone? There are countless ways for information to leak.

So It all Comes Down To Trade-offs In the End

As Mayer and Schmidt freely admitted, the party line is clearly this: If you use our services, you give something to get something. As computer privacy advocates like Richard Stallman have stated, your data is safest on your own your local hard drive on your own computer. As we use more cloud services like Google and Twitter and Facebook, and we give up more and more and more of ourselves online, we do so at a price.

Certainly at some level, all users understand that we are giving up something for the convenience of having access to our data whenever and wherever we want. But make no mistake about it, Google understands this trade-off and is beginning to sing it from the hill tops, just in case you weren't completely clear about it. And should you trust Google or Facebook or Twitter? That's a decision we all have to make, but ultimately, I think you know when it comes down to it, they will sell you out without a thought no matter what Schmidt says, all it takes just a little pressure.

Related Articles:
Google's Trust Issue Won't Go Away.

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Last Post by Emma Johns
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Would it be so hard for Google to commit to its policy contractually? That's what I don't get--it isn't that hard to go from "trust us" to "here is out policy and we'll commit to it in writing". It is, of course, absurd to imagine Google reading even the tiniest fraction of the data it accumulates. But it's not absurd to imagine employee abuse in specific instances. Even the Garden of Eden had a serpent sneaking around in it, causing trouble.

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Good point, Daniel. If they committed to this policy as a legal doctrine then it would trump even their obligation to shareholders I would think (so long as shareholders approved the policy).

As I said, there are a number of scenarios where this could be abused. I don't in any way imagine that Google is randomly checking people's data, by the way, but I can imagine them succumbing to any of the scenarios I've outlined in this post without too much trouble.

Thanks for commenting.

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i think to get information and going into your privacy is their need and the results provided by Google is our need, so lets just trust on it without getting offended.

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