Who’s the Bigger Big Brother, Amazon or Google?

June 14th, 2007 13 Comments

I’m a paranoid guy, always have been.

Last week’s report by Privacy International that slammed Google as “hostile to privacy” got me thinking about Amazon vs. Google, which knows more about me and how I feel about them. I happened to be downloading Smokin’ Aces (any good?) to my Tivo from Amazon Unbox, so I perused my purchase history to get an idea of what Amazon knows about me.

The answer is a lot. An uncomfortable amount. Holy crap, what would happen if they had a T.J. Maxx episode? Must find paper bag.

Amazon knows what books I read (or bought, anyway), what movies I like, what music I listen to, and the could tell where my extended family lives and what movies and music they like. They could tell when I got married, what my hobbies are, and now, they know I have two Tivos. It’s scary when you scan ten years of purchases, both from a why did I buy all this crap perspective and from a privacy one.

Along the same lines, Google has a mountain of data about me too, what I search for online and on my desktop, my personal email, my docs and spreadsheets, my calendar, the feeds I read, etc. I touched on this in my last post, and releases of Universal Search and Street View have only made the screams of privacy advocates louder.

So, what’s the difference? Both companies have enough data on me to do all kinds of bad things to me. Why do I willingly give Amazon information, but squirm when Google cookies me or catches my cat sunbathing in the window?

Money.

Ostensibly, I pay Amazon to protect my information. Amazon has a lot of nifty personalization features to make shopping stickier, but that’s OK for me because I pay them to keep all that information between us. My recommendations . . . mine. The page I made. It’s all about me because they know me pretty well.

I don’t pay Google a dime, and because they are rooted in search not e-commerce, their services should be free, as in Internet, as in beer. They shouldn’t know who I am, unless I say so. The fact of the matter is that to make their (free) services better, Google has to know about our online behavior. And even if it’s scary, it’s still free. Google’s saying the right things about privacy and being not evil, but at the end of the day, it’s still free.

And so are you. But free does not equal anonymous. If you don’t want them tracking you, block cookies; if you don’t want them serving you more relevant (creepy) results, opt-out and stay with vanilla Google, which ain’t bad.

So, who’s the bigger Big Brother? I’d have to say Amazon, based on what they know about me. Privacy International gave them a “notable lapses” mark, but I don’t care because I trust them. Am I naive? What do you think?


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13 Responses to “Who’s the Bigger Big Brother, Amazon or Google?”

  1. coComment - Site comments by Eddie Says:

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  2. Steven Chan Says:

    There’s a *big* difference between what I buy and what I search for on the web. In many ways, what I search for reflects deeper insight into me, since it reflects my interests rather than consumption needs.

    For example, I buy toothbrushes and dental floss from Amazon. Who cares?

    But I google for medical information for ailing friends suffering from cancer. Google could sell my search history to HMOs, who might then jack up my healthcare premiums (or worse, disqualify me for coverage) because of a mistaken idea that I’m going to start filing expensive cancer-related claims.

    Google hasn’t done this… yet. But others have. There are reports of people who have surfed oncological sites anonymously, only to receive directed emails (!) about cancer-related topics soon after. Google may claim to do no evil, but others like DoubleClick make no such claims.

    This is why I block all unnecessary third-party cookies as a rule for all websites, and only allow session cookies (linked to anonymized junk email accounts with fictious personal info) when absolutely necessary.

    Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that there’s no reason for concern.

    Regards,
    Steven

  3. Steven Chan Says:

    There’s a *big* difference between what I buy and what I search for on the web. In many ways, what I search for reflects deeper insight into me, since it reflects my interests rather than consumption needs.

    For example, I buy toothbrushes and dental floss from Amazon. Who cares?

    But I google for medical information for ailing friends suffering from cancer. Google could sell my search history to HMOs, who might then jack up my healthcare premiums (or worse, disqualify me for coverage) because of a mistaken idea that I’m going to start filing expensive cancer-related claims.

    Google hasn’t done this… yet. But others have. There are reports of people who have surfed oncological sites anonymously, only to receive directed emails (!) about cancer-related topics soon after. Google may claim to do no evil, but others like DoubleClick make no such claims.

    This is why I block all unnecessary third-party cookies as a rule for all websites, and only allow session cookies (linked to anonymized junk email accounts with fictious personal info) when absolutely necessary.

    Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that there’s no reason for concern.

    Regards,
    Steven

  4. Jake Kuramoto Says:

    Steve,
    I almost added “Just because I’m paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after me”.
    Definitely a big difference between what you buy and what you search for online. I am in no way a Google apologist, but I think they’re getting whipped now a little unfairly. It’s free service, and there are viable alternatives. By now, it’s known that search logs can identify intent, and I’m nervous about the pre-crime (a la Minority Report) aspects of tracking online behavior.
    I hear Yahoo has a search engine too. And Microsoft. And there are a boatload of others too. I’ll use them instead.
    I really like Amazon (always have), and I think they’ve done a terrific job of staying relevant. My point really is that they have more Big Brother type information than Google. I may search for infertility topics online, but if I’m buying fertility drugs and tests from Amazon, that’s a much clearer picture of what’s going on in my life. That’s intent compared to actual deed.
    Thanks for reading,
    Jake

  5. Jake Kuramoto Says:

    Steve,
    I almost added “Just because I’m paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after me”.
    Definitely a big difference between what you buy and what you search for online. I am in no way a Google apologist, but I think they’re getting whipped now a little unfairly. It’s free service, and there are viable alternatives. By now, it’s known that search logs can identify intent, and I’m nervous about the pre-crime (a la Minority Report) aspects of tracking online behavior.

    I hear Yahoo has a search engine too. And Microsoft. And there are a boatload of others too. I’ll use them instead.

    I really like Amazon (always have), and I think they’ve done a terrific job of staying relevant. My point really is that they have more Big Brother type information than Google. I may search for infertility topics online, but if I’m buying fertility drugs and tests from Amazon, that’s a much clearer picture of what’s going on in my life. That’s intent compared to actual deed.

    Thanks for reading,
    Jake

  6. Jake Kuramoto Says:

    BTW, here’s a nifty way to use Universal Search anonymously:
    http://blog.outer-court.com/archive/2007-06-12.html#n11

    Jake

  7. Jake Kuramoto Says:

    BTW, here’s a nifty way to use Universal Search anonymously:
    http://blog.outer-court.com/archive/2007-06-12.html#n11

    Jake

  8. Eddie Awad Says:

    I’m going to have to agree with Steven. Google knows much more information about me than Amazon does, and only because I *allow* Google to store such information.

    I use Gmail, so Google has all my e-mail archive. I use Google Reader, so Google knows what I’m interested in. I use Google Docs and spreadsheet, Youtube, Adsense, calendar … and as you said, all for free.

    No matter how hard you try, there is no such thing as “privacy” on the Internet, unless of course you do not use the Internet, which is impossible in this day and age.

  9. Eddie Awad Says:

    I’m going to have to agree with Steven. Google knows much more information about me than Amazon does, and only because I *allow* Google to store such information.

    I use Gmail, so Google has all my e-mail archive. I use Google Reader, so Google knows what I’m interested in. I use Google Docs and spreadsheet, Youtube, Adsense, calendar … and as you said, all for free.

    No matter how hard you try, there is no such thing as “privacy” on the Internet, unless of course you do not use the Internet, which is impossible in this day and age.

  10. Google’s plans to reduce the storage cookies Says:

    Google will not remember us until 2038…

    Most informed that some cookie with a set of Google site, which is valid until 2038. That was precisely the time and be substantially reduced. This will be the next step after anonimizatsii logs (removal of logs ID procurement and IP addresses) to impr…

  11. lost2 Says:

    I guess it’s an old quote but anyway: “If you dont’t pay the product is you”.

  12. Jake Says:

    Sure, but I’d counter that even though you pay Amazon, you’re still the product.

  13. John Says:

    I don’t use either. I mainly use Ixquick for searching, but if you ask me all the search sites suck. I almost ordered stuff from Amazon years ago, but they said they didn’t send stuff overseas, so I gave them the finger.

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