OPINION: Is Google being evil?

Demanding real names online is an affront to privacy

Two weeks ago I contended that "Freedom and privacy, in any meaningful sense, are dead" and discussed the two types of privacy, "factual" privacy, which concerns "static" data such as your age and cholesterol level, and "lifestream" privacy which is the realtime data about things such as where you go and who you talk to.

We all know that our factual privacy is in tatters with every business and government agency that has any interest being capable of finding out whatever it needs to know about us, the law not withstanding. As for the erosion of our lifestream privacy, well, that's somewhat new but even more insidious with most online businesses collecting, analysing and retaining insane amounts of data about where we virtually go and what we do.

Now, just consider the consequences of relating our factual data with our lifestream data. Not only could we be easily tracked but our online experience could be tailored, in real time, to have an effect someone else wants whether it's for us to be more receptive to a political or commercial message or primed to purchase.

In last week's column I segued into a discussion about online anonymity, which can protect your lifestream privacy and observed that you can achieve this if you're technical enough to use an anonymising service such as the Tor Network (unless "they" are really out to get you, in which case all bets are off).

I ended by pointing out that there is another side of anonymity to consider: Pseudonyms, also called "handles", aliases, nicknames or my favourite, "nyms";. Some people argue nyms are a bad thing because they enable dissembling and inauthenticity while others argue that they are essential in preserving the freedoms of people who would otherwise be oppressed.

If you've been following the rollout of Google's Google+ social networking service you may have seen Google's policy regarding the names which demands that your account uses your "real" name.

Google's argument for this policy is about as disingenuous as it gets, contending "this makes connecting with people on the web more like connecting with people in the real world... so that the people you want to connect with can find you." Surrrre.

Of course, what counts as a "real" name in the real world is more than a little tricky when you consider unconventional spellings and foreign names. Not unexpectedly, Google blew off its own foot a few weeks ago when it canned several thousand accounts for what Google saw as violations of their policy. Many of these were names that Google simply didn't understand.

The truth, I suspect, is that Google is more interested in doing what any right thinking user would abhor, trying to link factual and lifestream data for commercial purposes and the company sees its social networking platform as a powerful intelligence gathering mechanism that real names makes even more powerful.

Google has been, in many ways, an admirable organisation that has done a lot of good but to call its real names policy shortsighted would be kind. By demanding "real" names they can't reliably determine what are real, they've inconvenienced a lot of people and excluded all of those who, for example, live under politically repressive regimes or who might for social reasons wish to stay anonymous.

Nyms matter enormously and an online world without nyms, where everyone can be easily tracked, completely measured, tidily pigeonholed and endlessly manipulated, will become much less free and much less valuable. "Do no evil." Right.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

More about GoogleION

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Mark Gibbs

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place