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I Am Skooter
So here's us, on the raggedy edge.
If this were the last night of the world/ What would I do? / What would I do that was different / Unless it was champagne with you
— Bruce Cockburn, Last Night of the World
October 29, 2011
Why Google’s Verification is a Privacy Fail

Google’s Gmail launched a few years ago, to quite a bit of fanfare. At the time it was definitely the best webmail client out there, though I think that playing field has levelled quite a bit. I’ve got a few Gmail addresses, though none of them are used in any meaningful way anymore. I prefer to keep my email private, and those little contextual ads that pop up started to creep me out, especially when they were combined with Google’s tracking of web activities.

This morning I was going to create a new email address with Google when I was surprised to see, for the first time, a verification box that asked for my phone number:
Google Signup Verification Given the flack that Google’s taken over privacy violations, it’s interesting that they’re asking for this. The system “verifies” users by asking you to enter an phone number to receive either a voice call or a text message.

This may seem harmless at first glance, but the ramifications are huge and far reaching. This is particularly true given that Google doesn’t make any written commitment that this phone number isn’t being stored permanently (not that I’d believe them if they said they weren’t anyway.) That’s privacy violation number one: it’s highly likely that your phone number is store on a server in the United States if you’re signing up on Google today, even if you live in a country that would prohibit storing that information locally.

Most people have limited numbers of phone numbers—two or three at most. By asking for this information, Google effectively creates a situation where anybody with multiple email addresses can no longer keep them discrete. There are perfectly legitimate reasons to have multiple email addresses—for business purposes, for intimate communication with close friends, for humourous purposes—but the new verification process means that Google has a database which can potentially connect all of these identities together. That’s privacy violation number two.

These two combine into a potentially troubling scenario.

If you’re using one of those Google email addresses as an online identity (anonymously or otherwise) anything you say that somebody doesn’t like could potentially result in your information being hauled into court in the United States. A single lawsuit could result in Google exposing not just one but all of your online activity.

A lawsuit could compel Google to provide the verification phone number in court, exposing the first identify. It’s a short logical leap from there to have Google reveal all of the email addresses and other services that used that verification number. Suddenly, all of your online identities are at risk and connected by that verification phone number, & if you’ve ever looked at material U.S. authorities would consider questionable online, it might now be exposed in court.

With reverse lookup phone number databases becoming increasingly common, it’s a fairly simple matter from there to attach a physical address to your name. Suddenly all of that questionable material is tracking back to where you live.

There was a time, incidentally, when you couldn’t do a reverse lookup. The phone company wouldn’t let you. I tried once when I was a teenager: a friend had moved out of town and I had her phone number but not an address. When there was no answer I called the phone company asking if I could get it and they refused: the rationale was, in part, to prevent stalker like activities. That was the 80s. Two or three decades later into the future and stalker like activity is apparently the new normal. Go figure.

Google uses advertising cookies to track where you’ve been. This information is in a huge database. By definition it has to be, since they’re using it to serve up ads. With the connection created between your two email addresses by that phone number, Google could potentially start serving you ads in one profile based on what you did in the other.

All those phone numbers in their database also make Google potentially the largest database of telemarketing information around. They may say they wouldn’t use it for that now, but there’s no reason to believe in the long term they won’t eventually.

Let’s not even consider the possibility that the database could be broken into and stolen. That’s too horrifying to imagine. I could happen and you wouldn’t even know: recent events at Sony. demonstrated that pretty clearly.

There’s a common argument here that “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” That’s a red herring, of course. You have a right to privacy. There’s another argument that _”You get what you pay for” and it applies here in spades: Gmail is free, and since nothing’s free in life it’s worth considering what you’re actually paying for it.

Google’s product is people: they’re packaging you up and selling you to advertisers around the world, and this verification step is just another part of that process. If they can make a profit from your phone number, they will.

Millions upon millions of people have obviously decided the trade off is worth it, right? More likely, they’ve decided to ignore the problem. More likely, they’re not giving a second thought to the potential for harm here.

Don’t give Google your phone number. Just don’t. They don’t need it, and there’s no reason to ask for it.

Posted by skooter at 10:15 AM This entry is filed under Technology.
This entry is tagged: Databases, Evil, Google, Privacy, Stalker

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