In an interview last week at the Washington Ideas Forum, Google CEO Eric Schmidt made an interesting statement about his company's approach to individual privacy: "Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it." The statement begs an obvious question: Where should that line be drawn?
Coincidentally enough, on the same day Schmidt made that statement, I received an e-mail from a reader who had just come across a post I'd written back in March, "Why Google Should Stop Scouring the Private E-Mails of Gmail Users." In that post, I discussed the creepiness of Google's practice of delivering ads to you based on the content of your personal e-mail.
Here's what the reader, an actor in New York named Michael Bakkensen, wrote in his e-mail:
Thank you, Don, for bringing this up. Although your post is from nearly seven months ago, it's right on target with something I just noticed yesterday and have been trying to get to the bottom of. I was writing to my agent (I'm an actor) and since I'm out of town on a job mentioned that I had grown a beard for the role. Something I thought he should know in case he needed to put me on camera for auditions. Next thing I know I'm seeing "beard trimmer" ads all over the Gmail page. I knew immediately that my message had been scanned and distributed to third parties. Creepy? Definitely. There are plenty of ways for them to make money without resorting to actual reading of private correspondence by humans or human proxy. There has to be a line somewhere. In my opinion it's just been crossed.
Now, it's my understanding that Google in fact does not distribute users' Gmail messages to third parties, but it's not an outrageous conclusion to draw when you see that your private correspondence has been scanned for the purpose of connecting you with Google's paid advertisers. And no one at Google, from Schmidt on down, does much at all to allay those kinds of fears.
In that interview at the Washington Ideas Forum, an event produced by The Atlantic magazine, Schmidt's candid remarks to Atlantic editor James Bennet were anything but apologetic about what he sees in store for Google in the future:
With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches. We don't need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about.
In any case, as I noted in my March post on the subject, no one is forced to use Gmail, so there's some legitimacy to the response that if you don't like Google's practices, then don't use Gmail. Bakkensen expressed the view that such a response from Google and other Web tools providers is flippant and unrealistic, because "so much of our personal and professional lives depends on these companies," which are "well aware" of our predicament.
Bakkensen wants to know if there's a good alternative to Gmail that doesn't engage in Google's creepy practices. What would you recommend? And, more to the point, where should the creepiness line be drawn?