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Wednesday, 1 August 2012

When privacy is a problem... for Google.

How closely has our society come to echoing the 'Big Brother is watching you' sentiments of George Orwell's 1948 classic Nineteen Eighty-Four?

Every day, we enter information into websites; to shop online, to sign up to social networks and for countless other purposes. How often, however, do we take the time to think about what happens, legally or illegally, to that information that we log?

Have you ever wondered how it is possible that advertisements for things in which you are interested appear, for example, when you log into your Facebook or your Gmail account? It happens because the searches that we make, the 'likes' that we give out, provide information about our interests. Whilst it can be useful in helping us find exactly what we are searching for, or to provide genuinely insightful suggestions to inform our taste, there are limits that need to be respected so that the limits of our privacy are not breached.

When these limits are not respected the penalties can be strong, as Google has demonstrated. In February 2012, its problems mounted when the Electronic Privacy Information Center indicated that it may had purposefully worked around the privacy settings of Apple's Safari browser. If found guilty, the penalties could be as high as $16,000 per day of violation, although as the process is still working its way through the courts, the outcome is as yet unknown. Furthermore, the internet giant recently implemented an update that user data combines data from Gmail, across its 60 services, for advertising uses; an update that users cannot opt out of.

It is certain that the same is being done by other companies but it is difficult to know the extent and scale of the practice. These days, when it comes down to it, can you be sure that you are truly in control of what information is held on you by whom, and how it is used?

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