Is Google being too intrusive?

In all the recent hooh-hah over Facebook hiring PR agency Burson Marsteller to rubbish Google anonymously, one issue seems to have gone unreported: is Google becoming too intrusive and violating users’ privacy, as FB and its spinmeisters claim?

Over the past couple of years, Google has been linking its various applications more closely together, aiming for a single sign-up for Gmail, Google Messaging, and all its other applications, in the same way that Yahoo and Microsoft have been tying their empires together.

But Google has been going a little further. It started with Gmail. When you send an email to someone over Gmail, Google’s bots read the content of the email, pick out the keywords, and serve up GoogleAds that are relevant to the content. If I email you about ice skating, you and I will see ice-skating ads.

This is intrusive in the sense that one gentleman shouldn’t read another gentleman’s mail – but who cares? It’s only a robot. And the relevant ads could be genuinely useful to me.

But Google is now seeking to take all this a step further by identifying how influential we all are as individuals against the keywords in its index. It is using its expertise at developing relevance-based software to extend its reach from websites to users – to us. And linking our usage of all Google applications together is one more step in this process.

In the near future, Google’s database will have assigned all of us a value as an influencer against all the most searched-on keywords in its index. It will then be able to make use of this information to target us individually for advertising, emails and anything else that it can make money out of.

This may well have it’s good side – seeing only stuff we’re interested in and having the e-crap filtered out, in much the same way that our ISP servers currently filter out what they think is spam on our behalf. But there is also a downside. As users we will no longer have total control of what we see and read. Many choices will be taken for us by Google’s bots.

Google is obviously highly sensitive about this issue because it is strenuously denying that it is doing any such thing. But it made the mistake of recently patenting software that does exactly this kind of intrusive pigeonholing of users, thus giving the game away.

It’s perhaps ironic that in all the debate about privacy versus transparency currently taking place about superinjunctions, few seem to be concerned about an area that is potentially of far greater concern.