Google, Everywhere, Or How Privacy Is The Net's Biggest Quagmire : All Tech Considered A new program lets you know when your browser sends information to Google. How often it happens might surprise you.
NPR logo Google, Everywhere, Or How Privacy Is The Net's Biggest Quagmire

Google, Everywhere, Or How Privacy Is The Net's Biggest Quagmire

Google is everywhere.

That’s something we take for granted: The behemoth controls our e-mail and our searches; their tracking codes cover a great portion of the usable web.

Jamie Wilkinson, a technologist and artist based in San Francisco, has been trying to bring this issue into public discussion for a while now. Today, he released a plugin for Firefox and Google’s own Chrome that sounds an alarm whenever it finds that your browser is sending any information to Google.

“In effect,” he said, “it’s an exploration of how ubiquitous Google has become.”

To his point, I downloaded the plugin and surfed the web as I would normally. The alarm makes shrill sounds — like a vuvuzela in an echo chamber — so it made my internet experience insufferable. It told me that some 90 percent of the sites I went to -- including, and Wilkinson’s own Tumblr blog — were sending information to Google.

Jamie Wilkinson, the creator of the the Google Alarm plugin. Scott Beale/Laughing Squid hide caption

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Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

Jamie Wilkinson, the creator of the the Google Alarm plugin.

Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

“What was most surprising were the YoutTube embeds,” said Wilkinson. Google, he explained, includes the same kind of tracking code in embeded YouTube videos that it does on websites purposely coded with Google Analytics, the company’s web metrics program.

Google says that it anonymizes, or removes any association between the data collected and an IP address or cookie, when the data turns 18 months old.

"We like to think there are less ear-splitting ways of being transparent with users, and that's why we've created tools like the Google Dashboard - which shows users what information they share with us and provides direct links to control their personal settings," Brian Richardson, a Google spokesman said in an e-mail.

But Wilkinson says what disturbs him is that browsers have “fingerprints.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported earlier this year that using the information a browser alone provides could narrow your identity to only one person in about 1,500.

Fake Google Street View car made by members of F.A.T. Lab. Courtesy of F.A.T. hide caption

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Courtesy of F.A.T.

“On its own, that isn't enough to recreate cookies and track people perfectly, but in combination with another detail like geolocation to a particular ZIP code or having an uncommon browser plugin installed, the User Agent string becomes a real privacy problem,” Peter Eckersley, wrote for the EFF.

“I consider the internet a very private experience,” said Wilkinson. People, he said, would go crazy even if information about checked-out library books went public. “But, yet, we take for granted that our web history can be accessed.”

The Google Alarm plugin isn’t Wilkinson’s first digital screed against the search giant. The 25-year-old was also part of a project named F*&% Google, which, unlike an NPR blog didn’t see the need to censor itself. In any case, the project built a fake Google Street View car. It outfitted a sedan with fake cardboard cameras and the Google logo and drove around Berlin pretending to take pictures.

They expected people to be outraged that their private moments in public places were being photographed without their explicit permission. Germany, afterall, is the country that opened an all-out criminal investigation into an incident in which Google, during the course of Street View work, collected 600 giga-bytes of information from unsecured wireless devices.

“Instead, people wanted to be in the photographs. They wanted to take pictures with the car,” said Wilkinson with a chuckle.

Maybe it’s that we’re powerless.

When I tried out the plug-in, it was overwhelming. The alarm rang all the time and it seemed as though without some true, crazy, heavy lifting I had no choice but to trust Google to do the right thing with the information they collect.

“And that’s what we forget,” said Wilkinson, “that Google is a for-profit company” that’s not regulated.

But without it, we’re dead in the water: Imagine no Google search; imagine your Gmail goes away; or what would life be without Google Docs?

It’s an eternal tech quagmire that vexes even Wilkinson. Case in point: The man who advocates doing very naughty things to Google still uses their free Google Analytics in every one of his sites.