All users’ movements online are being tracked and sold and governments are getting in on the action.
At midnight on March 1, Google’s new privacy settings came into effect. Google has now assumed for itself the right to pool information from all its services – its search engine, e-mail service, YouTube, Google Earth, satellite navigation systems and more to develop a comprehensive profile of its users.
Google can read your e-mails, track your internet searches, your video viewing habits, monitor your diary and know where you live and where you are right now.
Suddenly, George Orwell’s 1984 seems quaintly old-fashioned.
Google’s primary interest in developing a comprehensive picture of the public and private lives of its users lies in its ability to target advertising.
At one level, this is not a bad thing. Online advertising that is aimed at our interests is potentially more useful than the random commercial spam that clogs the internet.
But the end of privacy as we know it is not something to be taken lightly.
Despite its carefully cultivated image of a hipper, more progressive capitalism in which CEOs wear jeans and work is done on leafy campuses, Google is just another corporation in search of profit.
When requested to do so by states, it has been perfectly willing to share information or to restrict access to information.
According to The Guardian newspaper, between January and June last year, Google “was asked by governments for data on 25 000 of its users worldwide and complied in handing over the information in around 19 000 of the cases”.
“The US government asked for details on 11 057 users, while the UK asked for 1 444.”
In other words, if the government wants to read your e-mails, know about your internet searches and your physical movements, Google will hand it over.
And in China, Google was perfectly happy to restrict certain search items, such as those relating to dissident groups, at the request of the Chinese government.
To make matters worse there is always the possibility that Google’s servers could be hacked, that their employees could be corrupted and, as The Guardian pointed out, every major intelligence agency in the world is going to be doing its best to get an agent into the Google server room.
BlackBerry, which for a long time was seen as a more credible alternative to Google in terms of privacy, lost that credibility after agreeing to hand over its records for BBM users after the riots in England last year. The cellphone app WhatsApp, used by many for free SMSing, is also not a secure service.
In addition, governments are tightening up on opportunities for private communication. In SA we have all had to Rica our cellphones, with the result that the state can track the movements and conversations of all cellphone users at the click of a button.
Our laws do mean that the state cannot legally listen in to our conversations without a court order but, as the Mail & Guardian has reported, the law is routinely disregarded.
It’s widely known that the state listens in to conversations within the ANC and that it monitors activists in poor people’s movements very closely.
Journalists have also been placed under surveillance.
If you are in solidarity with Palestine in Israel, a democrat in Zimbabwe or Saudi Arabia or an activist in a poor people’s movement in SA, you must never assume that any internet use, or cellphone use, is private.
We are not Google’s customers. We are the products that it sells on to others. If you want to communicate privately, you need to avoid all Google products and look for more secure alternatives. DuckDuckGo is a search engine that does not track its users.
At the moment, the only hope for governments to rein in the power of Google lies in Europe, where the EU is beginning a major investigation of the legality and morality of Google’s practices.
European Commissioner of Justice Viviane Reding has already said that data protection commissioners in the 27 EU countries had “strong doubts” that Google’s changes were legal and promised to take serious action against the company’s new privacy regime.
But for most governments, including our own, the temptation to expand surveillance of the citizenry is difficult to resist and Google’s incredible knowledge of the intimate lives of millions and millions of people is a very attractive resource.
Imraan Buccus is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences (Politics) at UKZN and academic director of a university Study Abroad programme on social and political transformation