Between Google and GPS, privacy takes a step backward

Score one for privacy rights -- at least that's how it seemed.

Earlier this week the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the police must get a warrant to track a person’s car using a GPS device, a step forward in protecting your privacy -- and then Google announced changes to its privacy policies that seemed to take two steps back.

The Supreme Court case dates back to 2005, when police in the Washington, D.C., area planted a two-way GPS device on a suspected drug dealer's Jeep -- without obtaining a search warrant. The court said that violated his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

I've argued for privacy rights before in this case, and the Justices cited an article of mine regarding privacy and high-tech tracking to support their position. Essentially, the Justices used it to point out that people have an expectation of privacy, in particular in their cars.

Interestingly, the citation had to do not with the government case but rather with an issue regarding private companies -- in this case GM -- doing such tracking for commercial purposes. Unfortunately, this judgment only curtails law enforcement from tracking you and your family arbitrarily. Businesses remain relatively free to do so.

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Underscoring the problem this week, Google announced that it would be changing its privacy policies across over 50 of its sites and applications to allow it to more accurately track and coordinate all the personal information it has about you. Essentially, that means Google will match all the videos you watch with the searches you conduct online, the e-mail you send, the friends you chat with, and your family calendar online (plus a whole lot more).

If that doesn't creep you out, it should.

Many high-tech businesses have shown a general disregard for personal privacy. Starting a dozen years ago, Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems said, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."

Similarly, Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, said in a 2009 interview with CNBC, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." That comment prompted some sites to post very personal information about Schmidt's life online (including the fact that reporters were easily able to obtain his Social Security number).

Schmidt would later qualify his position, saying at a meeting, “People have a right to privacy; it's natural; it's normal. It's the right way to do things."

Google has said in public announcements that the goal of such digital surveillance is to build better products. In other words, by using all the information it has about you, when you search for "Boston" it will know to put the Red Sox scores or the local chicken shack address at the top your results page.

Facebook, which is enforcing its controversial Timeline feature on its hundreds of millions of users this week, has deployed similar arguments. Making your entire social history more easily revealed online will make it simpler for you to "share" things that happen with your friends (it's a good thing!).

Of course, in all of these instances, the other motive is to make it easier for those businesses to share your personal information with other companies, advertisers, and marketers. In other words, it's often about making money, not about making better products.

Some consumer groups have also pointed out that the same tracking occurs with children, raising the hackles of protective parents (myself included). Should any company willing to pay for the information know how many times your child played those Annoying Orange videos on YouTube?

Google, Facebook and others will counter that all this is information is sold only as anonymous data. But there have already been cases of individuals being turned down for jobs (or fired) based on personal information that was considered private just a few years ago. Furthermore, anonymous data has been purchased by municipal governments and then used to issue traffic tickets in at least one case. So "anonymizing" that information doesn't make it harmless.

So if it's illegal for the government to secretly track you, consumers should ask themselves, why isn't illegal for businesses to do it?

Perhaps the most important thing to note about the Supreme Court's decision and citation is that it took into account our personal expectations about retaining a level of privacy. In other words, it does matter what you think and your complaints do make a difference.

The court decision should also remind everyone that just because technology is changing, it doesn't mean your rights are too.

Follow John R. Quain on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at