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Life In A Fishbowl

Last month Elinor Mills, columnist for CNET's "googled" Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Not surprisingly, Ms. Mills quickly found Mr. Schmidt's net worth, how much money he made from selling Google stock, the town he lives in and that he once hosted a fund raising dinner for a presidential candidate.

She disclosed this information in her July 14 column and last week reported that "Google representatives have instituted a policy of not talking with reporters until July 2006 in response to privacy issues raised by a previous story."

The implication being that Google is punishing CNET for its naughty reporting behavior. Ms. Mills disclosed the information to make a point. Google has links to an enormous amount of information about a great many people.

Google has declined to comment on the story.

I can't figure out what all the fuss is about. There wasn't anything in this article that wasn't already available to anyone else who took the time to look. As CEO of a public company, much of Mr. Schmidt's financial information, by law, must be disclosed to the public. The same is true of large political contributions. Where he lives is also public information. What's more, what people pay for their houses is usually available form public sources.

For more on the issue of personal information on the Internet, click here to listen to Larry Magid's interview with Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The article also went on to discuss other information that Google knows about many of its users. Mills was absolutely correct in pointing out that Google stores incoming and outgoing email from everyone that uses its Gmail e-mail service, but that's obvious.

The whole idea of Gmail is to store your mail on Google's service as a convenience to users. That's what I like about it. Google plans to make money on the service by displaying ads based on the content of the mail but that, too, is made clear to users.

Google also offers an optional personalized search service that keeps track of users' searches and offers other services that store information about its users.

But there's nothing unique about a company storing personal information. The same is true with Yahoo, Microsoft Network or any other company that offers personalized Web-based services.

I store my investment portfolio on which is part of MSN Money. Does that mean that Bill Gates can find out how much money I have and where I park it? Absolutely. Will he? I don't think so. It would bore him to tears. Besides, Microsoft, along with Google, Yahoo and other responsible companies, has a privacy policy that limits what they can do with that information.

On it's privacy statement at its Gmail site, Google acknowledges that it maintains copies of your messages but says that "Google employees do not access the content of any mailboxes unless you specifically request them to do so … or if required by law, to maintain our system, or to protect Google or the public."

Like other responsible companies, it also states that it will "never rent, sell or share information that personally identifies you for marketing purposes without your express permission."

Before anyone gets too upset about the information stored by Google and other Web sites, consider what else is known about you.

Your bank knows about every check you write, your credit card companies have a record of all your charges, phone companies know who you're talking to. If you use one of those club cards, your grocery store knows what you're buying. The same might be true if you pay by ATM or credit card. Your health care provider and health insurance company know just about everything about your state-of-health.

In other words, the vast majority of us live lives that are very well documented.

The whole system is based on trust. If you want to enjoy the benefits of a credit card, you must voluntarily allow the issuing company that information on the assurances that they won't misuse it.

You could pay for everything with cash, get a pre-paid cell phone account and only use the Internet from public terminals where you don't have to identify yourself.

But there is almost no way to be completely anonymous. If you drive a car, your license number is on display for anyone to jot down and find out who you are. It's illegal to get on a plane without showing ID and forget about renting a car or spending the night at a hotel or motel.

Unfortunately, there are times when the trust is violated such as the well publicized recent cases where database and credit card processing companies have accidentally disclosed personal information that they warehouse about the public. The sad part about that is there is nothing any of us can do to protect ourselves. It's not as if you and I necessarily willingly disclosed that information to the companies that store it. They get it – legally – from companies we do business with.

There are also plenty of Web sites which, for a fee, will disclose a great deal of publicly available information about people. My wife was trying to re-connect with a college roommate. Googling her didn't help because she has an extremely common name. All we knew was the town she grew up in.

A friend of mine who is a former executive of one of those data warehousing companies offered to help. Armed with only her name and the town she grew up in, it took him less than a minute to come up with a complete report on her including her married name, the names and addresses of her neighbors, her employment history, information about her family and even the sad news that her dad recently died. And this was only the publicly available data. There is plenty more for law enforcement, credit companies and anyone who can masquerade as someone with a legitimate reason to find peer into the depth of what these companies know about us.

Like it or not, we all live in a fish bowl.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid

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