Book Review "Googling Security": The Internet never forgets


Greg Conti's new book "Googling Security" (Addison Wesley Press) is an eye-opener for anyone blasé about the amount of personal information we share about ourselves over the internet. The author, an instructor on computer science at West Point, explores the dimensions of the data pool that can be gathered about you by Google. His clearly written, logical presentation left me with one overriding conclusion -- the capabilities being perfected by Google to maximize advertising revenue would, in the hands of a tyrant such as Kim Il-ung, be a priceless tool in maintaining a police state.

This is not Conti's conclusion, although his reservations about data consolidation permeate the book. Rather than prosyletize, he takes each Google toy and explores what information about the user can be gleaned from its use. For example, when a person discovers the satellite photos in MapQuest, what do they do? Look at the house they live in, and past residences. If, in 1999, you Googled the term 'genital herpes', that query still resides in a server somewhere, tied to your IP address. If you searched for high school classmates to friend on Facebook, those links add information to the profile used to serve you ads as you browse the internet.

Most people, you see, don't understand that the internet never forgets. Why does this matter? Think of it this way- since you were born, you've had contact with thousands of people, each of whom knows a little or a lot about you. Your third grade teacher knows you had chicken pox. The woman sitting next to you on your flight to Hawaii knows enjoyed the movie Bean. A high-school date knows .... The point is, if you could gather together all of the people in your life in one room and get them to tell their stories, there would be little about you left unknown.

This is what Google can do, and to some degree, does. Every time you search, email, browse, send a IM, you reveal a little more about yourself, and only the self-restraint of Google and other large data gathers limits how much data is consolidated about you. And while Conti rather obviously avoids discussing the Internet database mining being carried out by the U.S. government for the War on Terror, I suspect that most of what Conti describes as frighteningly possible is already perfected and in use.

This begs the question, of course--what you can do if you don't wish so much to be known about you? Conti makes the point, to which I concur, that you must first decide how much privacy you want, because most measures to guard your privacy carry a price in inconvenience. The first step, though, is becoming aware of the extent to which your online behavior compromises your privacy. This book is an excellent introduction to the subject.