A week without Google cookies

By | July 24, 2011

After my last post I decided to do a little experiment to determine how dependent I am on Google’s services and their knowledge of me. Rather than cut Google out altogether, I decided to disable all cookies and scripts from the Google domains and see what happened.

The most immediate effect was that I couldn’t log into Google services. This only really affected me at the news and reader sites. When I visit the news page, I get Swiss German (this is a mistake on Google’s part as I live in the French speaking part of Switzerland), and have to click through the dropdown to get Canadian English. Creating a bookmark to go directly to the Canadian News site fixed this.

I only have a few feeds, mostly webcomics in my Reader feed, so I didn’t miss it much, I just accessed those sites directly. If it was important, I could use Thunderbird for syndication instead.

I was also unable to turn off the extremely irritating ‘google instant’ behaviour. I hate having search results appear as I start typing and then disappear or move after I’ve realized I’ve seen what I want, but haven’t had time to tell my fingers to stop.

The biggest deficit was that Google maps no longer has any memory. I was surprised to discover that Google maps was my most personalized google product. I really appreciated maps predicting my home location, knowing that my search results should probably be close to Geneva rather than the US, and syncing up my location searches with my phone so my GPS had access to the locations I had just searched as I walked out the door.

I access my GMail account via IMAP (the web interface is too slow compared to local caching), so not having cookies didn’t impede that. I don’t use Gmail as my primary address anyway.

I also kept my Google Talk (accessed via pidgin) account enabled. I could ask my friends to use my Jabber address instead, but I figure Google would still be logging the chats at their end.

I’ve had Google Analytics disabled via noscript for quite a while already.

Overall, I’m quite confident that I could disable my Google account altogether and not feel I was missing out on anything (just as I’m not missing anything by not having a Facebook account). However, I don’t really have a reason to do so. I don’t consider Google to be evil in practice. In theory, however, they simply may not be evil yet.

Because Google services are “free” I am expected to give them access to my data trail as “payment” for those services, as with all free web services. Whether the product is worth this fee is a separate question. I could pay for competing services, but I have no reason to trust the competition more or less than Google. Zoho currently hosts my e-mail; the only reason I feel any safer with them than Google is that they aren’t big enough to have the intelligence gathering that Google has in place. Dave Crouse hosts this blog on archlinux.me, I trust him a lot more than any big corporation or other nonhuman entity.

I don’t agree with the “If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t worry” sentiment, simply because the definition of “nothing to hide” can change over time. Things that seem innocent in Google’s hands right now may take a more sinister meaning if their network ever becomes sentient!

I also realized that Google has access to all my public content (as does every service). This suggests that it would be sensible to migrate from Twitter to Google Plus, as I can still use the public stream the same way I currently use Twitter, but if I want to restrict publication of certain content to a specific circle, I have that option.

The only way it would be possible to hide completely would be to disable my Internet connection altogether. Even then, anyone can take my picture walking down the street, and every time I show my passport at an airport or hotel, someone, somewhere, knows I’ve been there. Since I can’t hide completely, and I don’t see that there’s any benefit to partial hiding (much like Dan McGee’s arguments against partial package signing), I think all I can do is accept that privacy is an old-fashioned concept in the emerging world, much like copyright.

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