Data and Privacy Rights

Media and law scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan discusses Google and the NSA.

By Rebekah S. Monson
Special to UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (October 23, 2013) — Google’s “Don’t be evil” rule is well-known, but Siva Vaidhyanathan, cultural historian, media scholar, and author of The Googlization of Everything, says the motto doesn’t extend to users’ privacy rights.

In a talk for the American Studies Speaker Series titled "Google & the NSA: A Tale of Corporate Social Irresponsibility?" on October 21, Vaidhyanathan, professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia, outlined how little users might know about how their data is collected, stored and used by the search-engine giant.

Google collects an enormous amount of data on its users beyond what they type into search engines — including where they drive, what they buy, what they write about, who they know and more, Vaidhyanathan said.

“What Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft are competing for now is data. Your data,” he said.

Despite Google’s deep history of corporate social responsibility—working on problems that don’t drive profit including the environment, broadband access, and more—the Snowden files reveal that Google (and likely its competitors) have allowed the government to access users’ data, Vaidhyanathan said. Documents suggest that Google was not eager to comply with the request, but it ultimately capitulated, he said.

It’s unlikely that Google will fight these demands from government given the political climate and predominant ambivalence about sharing personal data, he said.

“I'm afraid the U.S. won't change this policy,” he said. “I think we have to rely on other countries who are upset about spying."

But, Vaidhyanathan’s goal is to help people understand what data they are giving away, not to paint Google in a negative light.

“On balance the service and opportunities Google has given most of us has been pretty great,” he said. “They manage to sweep away major areas of inconvenience.”

Part of events at the University of Miami’s College of Arts and Sciences, the next American Studies Speaker Series lecture will be on October 28, when Diana Fuss,  Louis W. Fairchild Class of ‘24 Professor of English at Princeton University, will present “Bishop’s Mourning” at the CAS Gallery.

Rebekah S. Monson can be reached at 305-284-6748.

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