There is a lot of hollering going on these days about privacy and how giants like Facebook and Google handle your personal information. While privacy may be mortally wounded with all that we already share online, and we all need to come to grips with that, there is some merit to the discussion since both Google and Facebook have a notoriously bad track record when it comes to guarding your data.
Of course this latest round of hand wringing about privacy is because data gathered about you via Google+ (Google's version of Facebook) and YouTube (owned by Google) will soon be merged with data from Google's search, e-mail (gmail) and other services to create a "unified online identity" for you online. Google has presented the move as a simple housekeeping measure, but some privacy experts say it could significantly increase the company's ability to track and monetize its users.
So let's talk for a minute about the phrase "unified online identity." Smacks a bit of Big Brother doesn't it? And it is not just Google. Facebook has also made Timeline, its new user interface, mandatory. This new feature chronologically assembles, automatically displays and makes more globally accessible the preferences, acquaintances and activities of each of Facebook's 800 million members, creating its own version of a unified online identity.
But what is really scary to me about my proposed new "unified online identity" is how Google and Facebook are going to use that information. Sure it is not pleasant to think that they will pass my personal information around to advertisers and statisticians and that with all the "passing" will come added opportunities for hackers and scam artists to take a shot at using my information to try to snare me or use and abuse me and my identity in some horrible way. But what really has my hackles up is how my choices online are going to be limited by what Google THINKS they know about me. With my "unified online identity," Google will start to narrow what I get back in my search results. I will not, for example, get the top ten universal results on any item I search. Instead I will only get what Google thinks I want, based on past searches. So rather than giving me the full political spectrum on a political issue I will only get results that match what Google thinks is my opinion on the subject. If I search for a product online, Google could also conceivably only give me products it thinks I can afford, rather than products in a variety of price ranges. And those are only two examples of how I am going to be narrowed and limited.
With my newly minted "unified online identity" the information I am getting is going to be tailored and packaged, and dare I say it, censored. While I understand that in a world of seemingly infinite amounts of information, we all are tempted to let someone categorize and sort for us, there is definitely some danger in that. What scares me most, though, is that unless my fellow citizens in a democracy truly understand that when they search on an issue that the results are likely not reflective of the gamut of opinions on the subject, then I can see discussions in this country, and in the rest of world, becoming more and more polarized. While it is tempting to be soothed in this way, I don't think anyone in a functioning democracy should be supported into rolling themselves up into some kind of cocoon and hand fed only opinions that make them convinced that they are right and everyone else is wrong.
While Google might retort that those other opinions will always be out there for those who want them, how many people do you know who go beyond the top twenty search results when surfing the Web? Just something to think about.
If you have more questions about Google's new policy, take a look at this FAQ. Wondering how to choose what you share with Google? Find out how to get an overview of all the data Google associates with your account and what Google thinks it knows about you for ad purposes. Fed up with it all? Here's how to close your Google account.