Do you want a marketer inside your hard drive?

Google’s been getting a lot of press for its broad attack on competitors in recent weeks. It has introduced SMS messaging, a book search system and, most recently, a desktop hard drive search utility that plugs into its browser-based search services to integrate results from the files and applications on the user’s system with those generated by Google’s Web search.

Back in 1990 Lotus Development Corp. announced plans to release Marketplace, a comprehensive database of household demographic information that described 120 million American households, which was promptly attacked from every degree of the political spectrum as a serious intrusion on privacy. Lotus backed down, pulling the product before it ever reached the market. Eventually, after Marketplace was sold off, it did make it to market. That’s the nature of the erosion of privacy; it is worn away by repeated efforts to take away small parts of the personal space that surrounds us.

What a long way we’ve come, accepting with many of the steps along the information highway a dilution of personal privacy in exchange for convenience. Some of those trade-offs have been worthwhile. For example, I don’t think that the geolocation information available from my mobile phone, which allows me to dial 911 and have my location available to emergency services, is a serious loss of privacy, especially since I could leave my phone behind if I wanted to keep my location a secret, I’d just leave my phone behind.

I think Google’s desktop search, because it uses search terms to place contextual advertising around the results (see the screen shot, in which desktop and Web results are blended, above), is one of those huge chisels that is going to take a key chunk of our privacy away without any consideration by the public. According to the Google Desktop privacy policy:

What does Google Desktop Search do with the information on my computer?

So that you can easily search your computer, the Google Desktop Search application indexes and stores versions of your files and other computer activity, such as email, chats, and web history. These versions may also be mixed with your Web search results to produce results pages for you that integrate relevant content from your computer and information from the Web.

Your computer’s content is not made accessible to Google or anyone else without your explicit permission.

What information does Google receive?

By default, Google Desktop Search collects a limited amount of non-personal information from your computer and sends it to Google. This includes summary information, such as the number of searches you do and the time it takes for you to see your results, and application reports we’ll use to make the program better. You can opt out of sending this information during the installation process or from the application preferences at any time.

Personally identifying information, such as your name or address, will not be sent to Google without your explicit permission.

How we use unique application numbers, cookies and related information.

Your copy of Google Desktop Search includes a unique application number. When you install Google Desktop Search, this number and a message indicating whether the installation succeeded is sent back to Google so that we can make the software work better. Additionally, when Google Desktop Search automatically checks to see if a new version is available, the current version number and the unique application number are sent to Google. If you choose to send us non-personal information about your use of Google Desktop Search, the unique application number with this non-personal information also helps us understand how you use Google Desktop Search so that we can make it work better. The unique application number is required for Google Desktop Search to work and cannot be disabled.

Google Desktop Search uses the same cookie as Google.com and other Google services. If you send us non-personal information about your Google Desktop Search use, we may be able to make Google services work better by associating this information with other Google services you use and vice versa. You can opt out of sending such non-personal information to Google during the installation process or from the application preferences at any time.

While this seems to say that the content of your searches will not be transferred to Google, the terms you use are, by default, transmitted to the company—otherwise Google would not be able to place links in context to those results. Certainly, the content of your files will not be transmitted to Google, but the number of hits on your hard drive appear to be within the scope of the summary information collected by the company, or could be within that scope, because it appears to be written vaguely.

I’d suggest you take a look at Google’s Orkut privacy policy, which is far more explicit about what you are sharing with the company and its customers:

We may share both personally identifiable information about you and aggregate usage information that we collect with Google Inc. and agents of orkut in accordance to the terms and conditions of this Privacy Policy. We will never rent, sell, or share your personal information with any third party for marketing purposes without your express permission.

You understand and agree that orkut.com may access, preserve, and disclose your personal information and the contents of your account if required to do so by law or in a good faith belief that such access preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to comply with legal process, such as a search warrant, subpoena, statute, or court order, or to protect the rights and property of orkut.com, its affiliates or the public.

We use the non-personally identifiable information and certain technical information about your computer in order to operate, maintain and manage orkut.com.

Google’s goal with all its services, from GMail to Orkut and Desktop Search, is to gather more information about our individual interests. This allows Google to place ads in context wherever you go that Google AdWords-based ads are displayed. Today, those ads usually have something to do with the content of the page you are looking at, but in the future, Google wants to be able to target you personally with ads for the things you may be talking about on GMail or in Orkut. If Google can find out that you are searching for particular terms on your hard drive it gives the company another way to see inside your interests in order to target ads based on your most pressing needs.

It’s a profound vision, for sure, but one that offers such deep insight into our personal preferences that we should be discussing more completely what it means to our privacy. Google’s constant claim that it is “not evil” seems designed to prevent people from considering the implications of the company’s access to personal information. But unbridled power has a vast potential to corrupt.

Before this business model becomes too entrenched, people should be thinking about what they are getting in return for their valuable personal information. Some cheap software isn’t worth opening a door on your life to a marketing organization. Maybe Google should be paying us to use this software. Maybe we shouldn’t be using this software at all. None of these are questions to take lightly.

Author: Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he's published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.