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Privacy Wars: How to Hide While Google is Watching You

Aug 06, 20105 mins
Data and Information SecurityEnterprise ApplicationsMicrosoft

Do you value your privacy? Find how much Google really does watch you and then find out how to hide.

You know Google is constantly collecting vast information on you, but do you truly know much or how to hide? If you use Gmail, Google knows every email that you ever received, sent, or saved as a draft, even if you deleted it. Google knows the news you read, everything you’ve searched for, what search results you’ve clicked on, what YouTube videos you’ve watched, and every place that you’ve looked up for directions. About 80% of the time, thanks to Google Analytics’ tracking bugs, Google knows what websites you visited even when you didn’t use Google to find them.

During F*ck Google Week, Free Art & Technology (F.A.T.) Labs created a browser add-on to increase your awareness of how much information you send to Google. “Don’t get us wrong, we use Google too. We use search, blog search, Gmail, YouTube, calendar, docs, analytics, maps, etc,” F.A.T. Labs blogged before releasing Google Alarm.

There is a Google Alarm plugin for Firefox and Chrome to alert you each and every time (almost constantly) when Google pings you. There are two flavors, but I recommend the add-on with crazy loud and annoying vuvuzela alarms that sound when the search giant sends your information to its servers. That brings the point home very quickly. Then there is the non-audible “work safe” add-on that doesn’t constantly shriek but still shows notifications and keeps running stats about the percentage of websites you visit with Google tracking bugs.

Most people won’t give up Google, so they grudgingly accept the loss of their privacy and being tracked. After all, Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” CEO, Eric Schmidt said of privacy, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Privacy doesn’t have to be only an illusion. There are measures of control for your online privacy while using Google, other than its Privacy Dashboard. There are ways to hide.

Moxie Marlinspike, privacy advocate and security hacker with the Institute for Disruptive Studies, studied Google’s data collection before comparing it the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness program. He added that unless a person opts out of the social narrative, it’s almost impossible to avoid Google’s tentacles. He called the privacy controls that Google offer us “fake anonymization.”

Then Moxie wrote about the “Basic Problem” with Google:

They know who your friends are, where you live, where you work, and where you spend your free time. They know about your health, your love life, and your political leanings. These days they are even branching out into collecting your realtime GPS location and your DNS lookups. In short, not only do they know a lot about what you’re doing, they also have significant insight into what you’re thinking.

Moxie spoke at the Black Hat security conference about how to hide from Google. “Make no mistake. They are a surveillance business. Their intent is not the same as the government eavesdroppers. The effect is the same. Who knows more about citizens in their own country, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, or Google? Why is Google not scary? Because we choose to use it.”

Moxie Marlinspike offers an alternative to completely trusting Google with your data. He created a custom anonymizing proxy and Firefox add-on called GoogleSharing, so you can use Google without being tracked. The GoogleSharing Web site has a FAQ page explaining how it works.

GoogleSharing is a anti-snooping solution that scrambles users’ requests and makes it impossible for Google to tell which request is coming from whom. Nearly 80,000 people are currently using it.

As Moxie told me, “So I don’t just have to trust what Google is doing with my data now. I have to trust what they will ever do with it, since there’s no way for me to delete it.  I also have to trust that they will never get hacked, and that a government will never legally require them to turn over all the data they have.  Those are a lot of unknowns, and I think it’s prudent risk management to be as careful as possible with our data now in order to hedge against those possible futures.”

I highly recommend trying the Google Alarm, so you will be only too aware of how much Google is watching you. Then start hiding from Google by using GoogleSharing. Perhaps consider what F.A.T. Labs suggested, “So, join us and let’s all F*ckGoogle together.”

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.