Google CEO Eric Schmidt betrays Google’s privacy efforts

Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, recently made a comment about online privacy that has shocked privacy advocates and seriously undermined Google’s public efforts to enhance its users’ online privacy tools.

As I mentioned in a post a little while ago, Google has been doing quite a bit of work to give its users better and more effective tools to determine what personal information Google has about them and to limit or even remove those personal information stores in Google’s vast databases. These efforts serve as a reminder that your online experience is rarely secret and, at the same time, encourages me as a pretty heavy Google user because Google is far more transparent than any comparable company.

Unfortunately Schmidt’s comments have done considerable harm to Google’s image as a company that respects users’ privacy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an important online watchdog, published a post pointing out some of the problems with Schmidt’s comments and his apparent understanding of privacy issues:

Unfortunately, Schmidt’s statement makes it seem as if Google, a company that claims to care about privacy, is not even concerned enough to understand basic lessons about privacy and why it’s important on so many levels — from protection against shallow embarrassments to the preservation of freedom and human rights. In response to Schmidt, Security researcher Bruce Schneier referenced an eloquent piece he wrote in 2006 that makes the case that “[p]rivacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.” Schneier writes:

For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that — either now or in the uncertain future — patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.

I keep hoping that someone in Google will comment or “clarify” Schmidt’s comments but when these comments come from the company’s CEO, it would really need to be someone at the top to have much credibility. In the meantime his comments are not doing the company any favours and we are starting to see calls to reduce our reliance on Google’s products in favour of its competitors, like Bing.

The big question is whether Schmidt’s comments fairly represent Google’s take on privacy or not. Even if they don’t and this is a terrible misstep, it comes from one of the three key people leading the company and that is cause for concern by itself.

Update: Here is an interesting perspective on privacy in the context of Google and Facebook. Worth reading.

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