The creepiest phone company

Recently, I read a Computer World blog entry on Google Voice, which is Google’s entry into the VoIP telephone service arena.

At the surface, it looks pretty innocuous: a free phone number complete with voicemail and free domestic long-distance dialing. Dig a little deeper, and the disturbing part sinks in. Quoting the article:

Google already has a profile about your interests and surfing habits. If you use Gmail, it examines the content of your mail as a way to target ads. With Google Voice, it will know who you’re talking to, and when you’re talking to them — and will have records of your voice mail, and possibly recordings of your actual calls themselves.

The traffic analysis (call records, i.e., who is calling whom, when, and for how long) is scary enough by itself. The “free” transcription of voicemails, offered by a company called Google, is probably the creepiest thing I have come across in my entire time in cyberspace. Quite possibly it exists to serve Google’s self-interest as much as that of Google Voice users.

An anonymous commenter opines:

Am I worried? No. Why? Because we have laws in place to protect us against the misuse of that information. Frankly, I’d much rather have Google know more about my habits. That way when someone does steal my identity and try to use it maliciously (something that is much more likely to happen then a company using my information maliciously) it’ll be a piece of cake to prove that they are not me.

My response to this is simple. We cannot rely entirely on the law to protect us against misuse of information. A company whose entire reason for existence revolves around indexing data and making it available is not a company I will easily trust with my telephone calling habits. It’s scary enough that Google has developed a mobile phone OS and has used the words “open source” enough in the description of that OS while still failing the criteria for free software as it relates to the SDK (software development kit).

There is a huge difference, now more than ever, with free as in freedom, and
free meaning zero monetary cost.

The part I find scariest is that there is no way to tell a Google Voice number apart from a number whose usage is NOGDB (None Of Google’s Damn Business). At least the people that run, say, AT&T know how to maintain the privacy of a telephone network. I feel somewhat comfortable trusting AT&T with my telephone traffic. I don’t think I’ll ever be that comfortable placing that level of trust in Google. Here’s hoping the FCC, DOC, and equivalent agencies worldwide keep a close eye on them.