Opinion

HENDERSON: My quest for online privacy

July 20, 2013

HendersonMore than a year ago, I divorced Google. Why? Its terms of service and privacy policies are objectionable.

Both on a professional and personal basis, you and your employees are bound to those terms, no matter how your legal department looks at them. The reason is, unless you’re very good at understanding self-protection online, the information gathered by Google and myriad other organizations is astounding.

Voluminous information is at the heart of Google’s oil well, pumping 24/7 in its metaphorical basement. Here’s what they know, specifically about you: your name, your exact physical location when you browse, what topics you look at and for how long and frequently, where you went from there, and for how long, and essentially every online move you make, unless you specifically stop them.

Divorcing Google is not enough, and Google isn’t the only guilty one—just the most visible.

Worse, if you have a smartphone, we’ve tested an app that allows an Android-based Samsung phone to be tracked to about a specific meter almost everywhere on earth. How long you were there can be tracked, but also, if you allow this—and most do—your entire contact list, all the people you call, how long, perhaps the contents of your text messages, and more.

Privacy is also an asset. It’s your reputation, your employee’s reputation, and that of your organization.

Your colleagues, your customers, all are involved in data mining unless you’ve specifically taken steps to avoid having information about you—even your emails to places like Gmail—vacuumed into large databases. The databases then become part of the crux of Big Data, where opportunities for conflated mistakes live literally forever. Data is forever, or as long as it’s worth micro-cents on the dollar.

I had more than 3,500 Google+ followers, two Gmail accounts (business and personal), Google Voice and so forth. The divorce took almost a day. I had to replace Google’s seductive “free” products in my life.

It took a lot of work to find replacement products, even within subscription models, that allowed me to do my work. I still maintain one account for professional research-only purposes, but its use is limited to that. I sometimes don’t see Google for months, and I’m ever so happier. I miss only YouTube.

The number of free replacement apps is dwindling, but there are reasonable choices. I use a search engine called DuckDuckGo.com, which stores no data. There are no scripts on its Web pages to monitor my every move, my location, my search criteria. No cookie is left in my browser.

To prevent other Google family scripts and those used by other organizations, I installed Ghostery. There is a variant of this protection that’s even more interesting, called NoScript, which blocks most all scripts from doing work. You’d be surprised at how many websites go completely berserk if they can’t have your data—because you’ve disabled their scripts.

There’s a moment where you realize the depth of chicanery involved in data-gathering; you’ll feel a bit sick to your stomach. This is your life, your employees’ lives and your profession. They have value.•

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Henderson is managing director of ExtremeLabs Inc., a Bloomington computer analysis firm. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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