Got this email after I spoke about Google yesterday:
No comment on potential privacy issues? This has been the foundation
for many of the complaints heard about many of Google’s products (e.g.
Gmail, Desktop Search), and Google’s response to the government’s
subpoena has received a great deal of coverage. Looks like you omitted
a major part of the story, Ed.
I didn’t speak about privacy simply because Google is no different than anyone else
who ends up being the depository of personal information, including yourself.
While different governments have different laws, as a general rule of thumb, it’s pretty safe
to say that if you’re doing something wrong, and the government and/or those with legal authority have
good reason to get data about you, they have the right to get it.
If you think otherwise, you don’t know
what you’re talking about.
What do I mean by “wrong?” Well, there are of course illegal activities. There is no privacy right to kiddie porn
just about anywhere (and in some places, adult porn, too). Then there is information that isn’t illegal per se, but
may be required as a result of legal actions (a divorce case, for instance).
Evidence is evidence. Nothing magical happens to evidence just because it’s on some hard drive, whether yours or someone
else’s, and if you destroy evidence to thwart someone else legitimately seeking it, that’s generally a criminal offense, and again,
it doesn’t matter whether it’s encoded on rust or paper (and there is such a thing as forensic recovery).
There are what are called “privacy advocates” out there. What is important to realize about such people is that what they say usually
represents what they think the law ought to be, not what the law actually is.
Too many people think “privacy rights” mean “anything I want to keep secret stays secret.” Incorrectamundo, dude.
You often see places advertise that “we will protect your privacy!” Well, they’ll say that loud and bold, but if you really dig into the fine print, you’ll inevitably find a few words saying in effect, “. . . until we get a court order.”
Then again, just because there is no such thing as absolute privacy rights, that does not mean the government or other interested parties have the right to grab anything they feel like, or which might have some bearing on the matter at hand.
Again, YMMV depending on your national or local law, but those who want to see what you got generally have to have a pretty good reason to take a look and have pretty good reason to think something’s there, not because something might show up. When you hear about a government being denied the right to look at something due to “privacy,” it’s not because there’s some absolute privacy right blocking it. It’s because the governement or whomever is going on a fishing expedition hoping rather than expecting to find something.
Are there exception and gray areas? Of course, there always are, but you’d be very foolish to go out killing people because there’s a few exceptions to murder.
Nor is ignorance bliss. You’ll often hear it said by Americans that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents the government from searching them. No, the Fourth Amendment prevents unreasonable searches, and “reasonable” is decided by law and courts, not you (or for that matter, your friendly law enforcement officer).
So, you see, it really doesn’t matter if your personal data is on your hard drive, or Google’s, outside of maybe how much you as opposed to Google might want to fight a subpoena or court order. You might say that Google might end up “knowing” more about you, but the same could be said for Amazon or anybody else. The same general principle applies.
Just understand that “privacy” is usually the last refuge of a scoundrel these days, and the law decides what’s private, not you.