Don’t Be Evil? Why Google Knows More About You Than the NSA

Jun 12, 2013 at 4:43 PM ET

“Don’t be evil.” For years, that short, pithy phrase has been Google’s much-touted motto, but after Edward Snowden, a former government contractor, accused the company of giving the National Security Agency broad access to massive amounts of user data as part of the NSA’s once-secret Prism program, the seemingly benevolent tech giant has come under fire from a bevy of privacy advocates.

In eerily similar, carefully worded statements, Google and other tech companies have denied Snowden’s charges, and in an attempt to rebut his allegations, on Tuesday, the Mountain View, California-based firm asked the U.S. government to show the American public just how many requests it has received under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Facebook and Microsoft have joined Google’s call for greater FISA transparency (the social network collects similar information as Google does in order to sell targeted advertising).

If the government complies, that may offer comfort to critics who see Prism as a massive invasion of privacy. But as much as Google says it has nothing to hide, the company doesn’t want you to hide anything either. The search giant already stores a massive amount of your personal data on its servers, and for all the talk of what the NSA collects, even if Google is telling the truth about its role in the Prism program, it easily has a more complete picture of your biography and consumer spending habits than the U.S. government can piece together (at least as far as we know).

For those of us who have chosen not to edit our Google ad settings, the company collects your age, your gender, the languages you speak/read, the websites you’ve visited, the search queries you’ve entered, and any information about what devices you’re using to log on, including unique mobile information that can identify your cell phone number. They also collect and store your Internet Protocol addresses, so they know where you’re logging on from, which can determine your location. For each user, Google also generates what they consider accurate topics of interest according to their web and search history, so they can even guess an individual’s hobbies.

Sure, people willingly create Gmail accounts and participate in three-way video chats. A handful of people may enjoy Google+, and most do so knowing that some of their search and browsing habits are being saved — ostensibly to customize and enhance their user experience, but also so Google can make money off targeted advertising. (You can change your ad settings by the way).

Google says they don’t give advertisers any information that can identify you specifically “with sensitive categories, such as those based on race, religion, sexual orientation or health,” but the company is still collecting this information and storing it. And the American public, already in the throes of a sensitive debate over the tradeoffs between security and privacy, might not like what they find should the feds follow through with Google’s request. Between 2008 and 2012, for instance, an NBC News report found a 1000% increase in FBI requests to companies for personal records using FISA as its justification.

As the Onion wrote in a recent headline that seems to best capture Google’s predicament, and the limitations of its “don’t be evil” mantra: “Area Man Outraged His Private Information Being Collected By Someone Other Than Advertisers.”