The Crazy ‘Imploding Robot’ Analogy Google Used to Justify Reading Your Email

If a robot reads your diary and then implodes, is it a threat to privacy?

National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
May 20, 2014, 10:11 a.m.

Long be­fore Ed­ward Snowden ex­posed how the gov­ern­ment ex­ploits per­son­al data culled by In­ter­net com­pan­ies, pri­vacy ad­voc­ates feared that Google’s meth­ods of min­ing email con­tent was a dis­aster in the mak­ing.

Back in 2004, former Cali­for­nia state Sen. Liz Figueroa wanted to ad­vance le­gis­la­tion that would have al­lowed people the right to opt out of the tar­geted ad­vert­ising Google used in its then-new email ser­vice, Gmail.

No­ti­cing her skep­ti­cism, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page sat down with Figueroa to dis­cuss her con­cerns about how com­pany bots read emails.

“All of a sud­den, Sergey star­ted talk­ing to me,” Figueroa re­counts in the second in­stall­ment of PBS’s new Front­line doc­u­ment­ary, United States of Secrets. “He said, ‘Sen­at­or, how would you feel if a ro­bot went in­to your home and read your di­ary and read your fin­an­cial re­cords, read your love let­ters, read everything. But be­fore leav­ing the house, it im­ploded.’ “

Brin pro­ceeded to tell Figueroa that such a ro­bot, like Gmail, didn’t vi­ol­ate pri­vacy be­cause “noth­ing’s kept, nobody knows about it.” (Start the clip above at 2:05 to watch the full ex­change.)

Figueroa was shocked by the strange com­par­is­on — and en­tirely un­con­vinced.

“Does that ro­bot know if I’m sad or if I’m feel­ing fear or what’s hap­pen­ing?” she asked Brin. “And he looked and me and said, ‘Oh, no. That ro­bot knows a lot more than that.’ “

Figueroa ul­ti­mately amended her bill, be­liev­ing that Google would not keep the per­son­al in­form­a­tion it col­lec­ted. “Un­be­knownst to me, ul­ti­mately they were go­ing to store the in­form­a­tion,” she ex­plains in the doc­u­ment­ary.

Ten years later, it’s al­most im­possible to es­cape the type of ad-tar­get­ing that Google pop­ular­ized with Gmail, no mat­ter where you go on the In­ter­net. Face­book tracks user be­ha­vi­or to tar­get ads to its more than 1 bil­lion users.

Com­pan­ies like Google for years de­fen­ded their data-col­lec­tion prac­tices and said that it was bey­ond the reach of gov­ern­ment au­thor­it­ies. But leaks sup­plied by Snowden and pub­lished by The Wash­ing­ton Post last Decem­ber re­vealed that the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency has ex­ploited a type of Google “cook­ie” used to track In­ter­net activ­ity for the pur­poses of its own sur­veil­lance. The Snowden files have also ex­posed an NSA pro­gram that secretly broke in­to the serv­ers of nine U.S. In­ter­net com­pan­ies, in­clud­ing Google.

“Gmail was a pri­vacy dis­aster,” Chris Hoofnagle, the dir­ect­or of Berke­ley Cen­ter for Law & Tech­no­logy, told Front­line.

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