As Americans read daily about the stagnant U.S. economy, they not only have to worry about their family’s savings and retirement plans — which are vanishing right before their eyes — they have to worry about new types of con artists and scammers exploiting their worries.
Whether it’s scams that exploit seniors, identity theft schemes, phony IRS agents or other scams, the world-wide web has proven itself to be a perfect tool during the economic downturn for con artists looking to exploit a vulnerable mark.
News coverage of these frauds may cause a sense of hyper-vigilance and even a desire to limit online activity to familiar places and sites generally to minimize risk. However, that’s not necessarily the way to avoid exploitation in the digital world.
Unfortunately, one of the most insidious opportunities of all time to deceive individuals is one being put forward by digital heavyweight Google. In this case it appears to be part of the company’s business model, challenging the well-accepted notion that name brand products and services are likely to be more trustworthy and safe.
From tracking and collecting your favorite restaurants, movies, and even your dating status, Google’s business model appears to rely on collecting and collating personal information about online users in a way that even the best private investigators can’t. Their algorithms are so sophisticated that they can determine not only how many individuals access the internet in a given home, they even can capture their birthdates, gender etc., all so they can determine how to market products and services. They do this whether you knowingly give permission or not.
If this seems useful, just imagine that the info marketed to you by Google may not be the same as that which is seen by your son or daughter when they log on.
Officials as far afield as Texas and the European Commission have initiated investigations into Google’s actions that exploit online users. In Washington, both the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are reviewing Google’s practices. Nevertheless, the complaints don’t stop there. From alleged misuse and manipulation of search results to censorship of content and purported intellectual property rights abuses, Google’s practices are beginning to attract attention in the public arena.
Google appears undaunted. In fact, when the FTC initiated its most recent review of Google’s deceptive practices this summer, Google issued an official statement that is quite telling:
Since the beginning, we have been guided by the idea that, if we focus on the user, all else will follow. No matter what you’re looking for – buying a movie ticket, finding the best burger nearby, or watching a royal wedding – we want to get you the information you want as quickly as possible. Sometimes the best result is a link to another website. Other times it’s a news article, sports score, stock quote, a video or a map.
Instead of living up to consumer’s basic expectation that they themselves will have control over how their information is used, Google has mastered the art of collecting, analyzing, and redistributing data for its own marketing purposes. Google has focused on the user like a laser beam. But to what end?
Despite claims to the contrary Google has not been transparent with the rules that it operates on. From tracking the ISP addresses of its email account users to literally mining the texts and messages of emails of its users, Google has made a business model of taking personal information and repackaging it for resale to others. The technology that allows this capability is awesome and advanced which is all the more reason for its application to be scrutinized.
The FTC has already reached a settlement with Google over its deceptive practice, earlier this year in fact. In that case, involving Google Buzz, Google acknowledged that it used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy when it launched the social networking site nearly 2 years ago. The FTC was particularly concerned that Google had explicitly violated the very privacy agreement it had presented to users by refusing to allow customers to opt out or limit the use of their information.
The privacy agreement stated: “When you sign up for a particular service that requires registration, we ask you to provide personal information. If we use this information in a manner different than the purpose for which it was collected, then we will ask for your consent prior to such use.” Google simply disregarded the choices made by its users to aid in the expansion of the Google Buzz rollout.
Americans are rightly worried about the economy and fears of exploitation. Unless Google changes its business model, even retreating to the safety of home won’t reduce our risks of our private personal information being passed on to those wanting it for deception.