Encrypting your data is the best way to keep it from prying eyes.But Google — and other ad-supported Internet services — rely on that data to show you relevant advertisements.
So admits Vincent Cerf, who was one of the creators of the Internet and now works as an evangelist for Google. He was on a panel with privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian in September.
Soghoian has criticised the company for storing too much user data in unencrypted format, which makes it open to government requests for data. And Google gets a lot of those requests — more than 14,000 in the first half of 2010. It complies with most of them.
Most of the requests are related to suspected criminal activity, but there’s always the risk that oppressive governments could use these requests against political activists, for instance.
[I]t’s very difficult to monetise data when you cannot see it. And so if the files that I store in Google docs are encrypted or if the files I store on Amazon’s drives are encrypted then they are not able to monetise it….Now, this doesn’t mean that Google and Microsoft and Yahoo! are evil. They are not going out of their way to help law enforcement. It’s just that their business model is in conflict with your privacy.
Cerf corrected some of Soghoian’s points — for instance, Google only scans Gmail messages to display relevant ads, not content in Google Docs.
But he essentially agreed on the main point:
I think you’re quite right, however that, we couldn’t run our system if everything in it were encrypted because then we wouldn’t know which ads to show you. So this is a system that was designed around a particular business model.
So what should users do?
Another Google exec, privacy lobbyist Will DeVries, tweeted that journalists, bloggers, and businesses should all “take a couple hours and learn to use free, widely available security measures to store data and communicate.”
Soghoian points out he didn’t try to say that Google is somehow inherently more safe or secure than its competitors, and gave both execs points for their honesty.