They Know What? Google's Omniscience Causes Some Concern

Friday , July 31, 2009



Google’s CEO once said the company wants to know more about you than you know about you. It looks like the search engine giant may not be far from reaching that goal.

With applications including Google Finance, Google Translate, Google Earth, Google Images – just to name a few – Google is emerging as a "Big Brother-ish" trove of information with limitless access to our personal lives, raising some serious concerns.

Take Google’s simple Web search engine, for starters. Consumers who use Google to find fast facts and answers to questions are giving the company a database of information. The company tracks all search words, storing each entry for up to a year and a half.

"As Google knows more about us, it has a greater ability to control our activity, to try to direct us to things that Google wants us to do," said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

LIVESHOTS: What Google Knows About You.

Users of Gmail, Google’s e-mail system, offer the company even more personal information. The company's computers scan all e-mail sent and received on the site, and Google uses the words contained in the e-mail messages to tailor the pop-up ads featured on the site to each individual consumer.

"It's just creepy," Charlie Heffernan, a Gmail user, said. "Somebody is reading the content of my e-mail to discover what I'm talking about."

There's more. Google may know your address, where you drive and — if you sign up for Google Health — the personal information on your health records. Sound a bit extreme?

It turns out it’s par for the course with the giant search engines, and Christine Chen, a Google spokesperson, said individual users' information isn't being combed over by the companies employees.

"This is basically all done by computer, there are no humans that ever read this and this is the same technology that's also used to prevent spam," Chen said.

Google can provide such a wide range of services to consumers precisely because it can sell so many ads. It can sell so many ads because it knows its consumers so well.

But Google's omniscience is raising eyebrows, even attracting the attention of lawmakers in Washington. Congress, taking a closer look at Google’s seemingly endless access, held a round of hearings last month on whether the consumer should be able to opt out of such arguably invasive practices.

So, will it happen? You can probably follow the progress on Google.

FOXNews' Dan Springer contributed to this report.