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What is Google taking when it takes our data?

The internet is having one of its periodic freak-outs about a privacy policy change. Gawker posted a ridiculous, trolling article, which made its way onto Tumblr, and now is showing up in the Washington Post and on Democracy Now. The sentence causing all the concern is:

In a radical privacy policy shift, Google announced today that it will begin tracking users across all services—email, Search, YouTube and more—sharing information with no option to opt out. The change was announced in a blog post today, and will go into effect March 1.

Now, as Forbes points out, this is bollocks. This is not a policy shift at all, still less a radical one – tracking users across services has been in Google’s privacy policy since 2005. What I’m trying to figure out, though, is why people are freaking out over this. A couple of possibilities occur to me:

  1. People misunderstood the description of the change, and took “sharing information” to mean that Google would be, IDK, going through your email to find your mum’s address so that they could email her links to all the videos you watched on YouTube, or something.
  2. People didn’t know that Google was already combining information across products. This is plausible, but why would people care? If you’re worried about Google having your information, why does it matter if they have it in two separate databases or in one?
  3. People didn’t know that Google stores information about how you use its services.

Looking at the responses of people on Tumblr, the third seems like it might be the case, but this is very odd. Young Tumblr users are the sort of people who tend to get called “digital natives,” but they seem to lack a basic understanding of how the internet works: Google runs the computers that store your email, so of course they have access to your email; when you search for something you send the search terms to Google’s computers, so again, of course they have access to what you search for . The basic thing which people should understand is that unless you take specific steps to make it otherwise everything you do on the internet is public. It’s public in much the same way as walking down a busy street in a foreign city is public: no-one who has access to the information is likely to care about you, and no-one you care about is likely to have access to the information; but there will always be other people who do have access to this information.

But it’s hard to be sure what’s going on here, because, although I’ve trawled through many of the Tumblr posts on this issue, no-one seems to be explaining exactly what it is that they’re worried about. What, in other words, is the “privacy” that people are worried about here? There are real concerns about privacy, of course, and two of Google’s recent policies – Buzz making people’s email contacts public, and Google+ requiring people use their legal names – potentially expose people to real danger. But this is a concern with services releasing data in ways which are problematic. A lot of concerns about “privacy” seem to be objections simply to the fact of Google tracking data, to the idea that our behavior can be quantified and mathematized. The concern, that is to say, is about privacy in the sense of our true, innermost, self, our bourgeois subjectivity. Or, to put it another way, people are worried about technology stealing their souls.