Today I ran across and article on C|net titled "How Google products go from creepy to cool," which discusses some of the privacy concerns which raise their ugly heads every time (it seems) Google rolls out a new product or enhancement:
But the cries of "creepy" still come when Google releases new products that by pushing the envelope push us beyond our privacy comfort zone. Case in point is Google Now, an automated personal assistant destined for Android's Jelly Bean. Google Now will be able to use information such as your search history, calendar, location and other data Google knows about you to anticipate your needs, such as reminding you about a meeting you have this afternoon, telling you the weather in the city where the meeting will be held, and offering up a train schedule to get you there.
"In the digital personal assistant world, it's not human-like qualities -- a.k.a the uncanny valley -- that makes these programs creepy, but rather the kind of information they have," Rebecca Greenfield wrote in The Atlantic Wire. "That Google Now knows about us in a more than Google-search-able way makes the service feel like an intrusion."
Now, I'm a total Google fan-girl, and have been for years. In my family, I'm the go-to person (not that that's saying much) when there are questions on how to access this service or tweak those settings with Google products. When something new comes up, I'm the first one slavering to get on board and play (Google Wave and Google+, anyone? LOL), and I love the integration and ease (well, mostly) of use of the Google line of apps.
However, all the knowledge about me and my life that this integration requires is something that we should be cautious about - of course! In my personal experience, Google has been far more responsive and careful in this arena than other providers (*cough* Facebook *cough), but they have made - and will make - mistakes. Remember, the Google monolith is run, managed, and developed by humans, and mistakes are normal. So, it is very wise to be mindful of what you say, where you go, and how you share things.
I think that one of the best ways for Google to address the privacy issue is to consciously adopt a very particular image, that of a talented, discreet consierge at a top of the line luxury hotel. The consierge in this position knows all of his clients intimately: what they like to eat, their interests, their goals, where they like to relax (and how), concerns/allergies/preferences, their likes and dislikes, how much money they want to spend, their shopping habits - everything the consierge knows is directed to makeing his clients' stay at his hotel the most pleasing, relaxing, and helpful experience ever. After all, he wants them to come back again and again, and tell their friends about their fabulous stay and encourage those friends to share that hospitality.
The consierge is the ultimate host, paving the way for the stay of a lifetime.
Remember, though, that the other side of the coin is discretion.
First of all, the consierge, while ever-available and accessible, is unobtrusive. Generally speaking, he does not put himself forward with his own preferences or with self-promotion (and in re: Google, I'm talking about Google's presence in out day-to-day living, not the occasions like Google I/O, which is, of course, a promotional event - and properly so). Just like an excellent waiter, the consierge does not hover, but is immediately on hand to offer suggestions, answer questions, and give service as needed.
Secondly, but even more importantly, the consierge's professional discretion assures that he holds his clients' privacy to be absolutely sacrosanct. He never gossips, never sells information, and actively rebuffs any intrusive curiousity about his clients. Telling your secrets to the consierge should be like telling them to a stone wall: they never, ever go anywhere else.
This is a very difficult position to be in for Google - I won't deny it. To have the knowledge they do about our lives - and they must have it, to make their revenue stream work - and yet to either keep it completely private or else so anonymous (for market research, evaluating trends, and so on) that our lives remain private is a delicate and nerve wracking path to navigate.
I doubt it's possible to do perfectly (even real-life consierges make mistakes, after all!).
But, I think that if Google makes this sort of mindset part of their corporate conscience and ethics - it fits in perfectly with "Don't be evil" - then we can feel more confident when we entrust our data and our online personas to them.