Technically Creepy

Google Docs users have found themselves locked out of their files for alleged Terms of Service violations. Google's response explains this is more or less a technical glitch. But it is clear that Google inspects documents stored in its cloud services. Here is an update tacked onto the story by Brian Fung (emphasis mine):

On Tuesday afternoon, Google said that it does not technically read files, but instead uses an automated system of pattern matching to scan for indicators of abuse. Though it can identify clusters of data that might suggest a violation, the system does not pull meaning from the content, according to a company spokesperson.

What does it mean, "technically", to read, then, if not "pattern matching"? My reading of this is that Google is saying that its human employees don't read your Google Docs files. But that seems a sort of meaningless distinction when those files are clearly inspected algorithmically by software agents. And, speaking of meaning, apparently Google now gets to define the word. Meaning, apparently, indicates human readers poring over each line, such that Google can effectively read all your documents while maintaining that they aren't, so long as the reading is done programmatically.

The whole point of privacy is that individuals get to decide what is meaningnful in the public spheres of their lives and what is only meaningful for themselves and within circles of their intimates. And, if nothing else, these "glitches" show that privacy and data freedom advocates are exactly right to caution users that using systems like Google Docs means you don't control your work or data.

As with all kinds of production, ownership matters. This is true with cultural production. Resisting corporate dominion over daily life means learning, teaching, and building tools that don't depend on the Googles and Facebooks and Twitters of the world.

Get free. Own your stuff.