Every year, Chris Hoofnagle organizes the US Big Brother Awards under the auspices of a public interest group called Privacy International. "These are awards we give out to government institutions and businesses whove done the most to invade our privacy," says Hoofnagle, who also serves as deputy counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), another public-interest group concerned with maintaining civil rights on the Internet.
The awards wont be announced until March, but Hoofnagle recently received a nomination that he found particularly worthy of investigation. Representatives of a Web site called Google Watch sent him an e-mail complaining about privacy infringements by none other than the Webs most popular search engine. Basically, the e-mail accused Google of disseminating spyware. Google, the message said, was using its Toolbar application to collect reams of information about the surfing habits of the worlds PC users.
To most users, the Google Toolbar, available for download at Google.com, is simply a convenient means of searching the Web. When you install the app on your PC, it integrates with your Web browser, giving you an unobtrusive command bar with a text-entry box you can use to quickly and easily send a query to Googles online search engine. You type a query into the box, and your browser, jumping to Google.com, immediately displays the results.
Of course, the company collects all this information if you enter a query directly into Google.com without using the Toolbar. The problem with the Toolbar is that, if the apps advanced features are running, Google also keeps a record of every single site you visit—whether youre using the app to search the Web or not.
The presence of software that collects information about users online behavior has become extremely common on the worlds online PCs. WebRoot, makers of an application called Spy Sweeper that helps users remove spyware from their systems, says that there are over 6,000 forms of spyware loose on the Internet today. This includes not only cookies and browser aids like the Google Toolbar, but also adware that tracks your behavior to target you for pop-up advertisements; keystroke loggers and other system monitors that let others lift extremely personal information like e-mail from your system; and Trojan horses that give hackers complete access to your PC, letting them not only track your behavior but also control your system, changing settings and deleting files. According to research firm Gartner, adware alone has found its way into over 20 million PCs across the world.
"Google strives to uphold the highest level of integrity and respect for our users information," says company spokesperson Nate Tyler. "Google does not share non-aggregate user information with third parties and we treat the integrity and security of user information seriously."
The company does, however, share records of users surfing habits with people outside the company: "Google may share information about you with advertisers, business partners, sponsors, and other third parties." And, as is the case with any business, the company "will release specific personal information about you if required to do so in order to comply with any valid legal process such as a search warrant, subpoena, statute, or court order."
Should you be worried about information Google is collecting? Chris Hoofnagle is. "I thought [the Google Toolbar] was something that let you use the Web more easily, not something that let the company track you," he says. "Im rather astounded."
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