Three years ago, Google launched a service called Google Health. They claimed all kinds of uses and needs for the service but I believed from the outset that they had crossed the line in the privacy stakes. And now it appears that Google has agreed. They’ve announced that they will be closing Google Health because of poor market adoption. No kidding.
Here’s a copy of the post I wrote on TechLeader in May 2008:
How do I love Google? Let me count the ways.
I love that they’ve kept their simple homepage while all around them have transformed into overwhelming portals. I love their ingenuity. Their ability to solve problems that we didn’t even know we had is unmatched. I love their search engine with all its patented algorithms, PageRank scoring and fast-loading, thumbnail-free search results. I love their ability to scale infinitely. My Gmail account has a 6.748 GB limit … and counting. I love Google Labs. From Google Suggest to Google Maps, new tools continue to appear for an easier and more relevant internet experience. I love Google Alerts. I choose the keyword around a topic I’m interested in (’Zoopy’ is one example) and every time the keyword appears in an indexed web page, news article or blog post, I’m mailed a quick link that takes me straight to the keyword mention. I love that Google is free. But if it wasn’t, yes (in answer to Eve Dmochowska’s question) I would pay for Google search and Gmail. In the meantime, I really don’t mind seeing Google Adwords around the place.
But as much as I love Google, I love my privacy more. And I believe that Larry and Sergey have gone one step too far with Google Health.
Firstly, as a concept, I would never, ever publish anything to do with money, health, advanced personal identification or trade secrets online. For me, Google started to blur this personal privacy line of mine with Google Docs. While I can obviously see how this could be useful for many happy campers, I would never be able to populate Google-hosted, web-accessible documents/spreadsheets with anything but a shopping list (or something equally superficial) for fear of it being seen by eyes other than mine. If I was collaborating with others on a project that was connected to income or intellectual value of some kind, I would never put it at this kind of risk. I have been known to be overly-protective, but rather safe than sorry is a good motto when it comes to business.
Secondly, and more specifically to Google Health, the user is being asked to make a gigantic leap of faith. They’re being invited to store everything from lab results to permanent medical records of all their conditions/diseases/ailments, accessible by medical practitioners, Google staff and technicians, your friendly neighbourhood hacker and the entire human population (if Google gets hacked, which has happened before by the way). And if your family GP happens to be checking your records and leaves it open while he nips out for lunch, how happy are you to have all your innermost (and outermost) secrets revealed to anyone who passes by the computer screen, from janitors to medical assistants to other patients even?
The fact that anyone is willing to use this service is frightening. We live in the age of phishing, 419 scams and a million ways to have your information stolen/copied/sold. Why is it that some people are so ready to put their entire lives on a virtual platter, for anyone who’s hungry enough to get at it? The most I’ve ever put into Facebook is a username and email address. I don’t think I even identified a location. Sharing is good, to a point. Sharing personal, private, secret information is (in my very humble opinion) just asking for trouble.
In a brief Twitter conversation with Rob Stokes, Jacques Marneweck and Tyler Reed about this topic last night, the argument in Google’s defense was generally twofold: that Google records all our searches anyway, so they probably know what medical conditions we have; and that users were probably equally shocked at the prospect of having Google Ads displayed on Gmail and other pages when Adwords first rolled out.
I don’t agree with either of these arguments really. In the first instance, there is a light year’s difference between Google knowing that a user with IP address 18.104.22.168 (who is logged in as bluesmurf101 in Gmail) is searching for ‘red warts on nose’; or knowing that Jonathan Jacobs from 104 Avalon Heights in Orange Tree Road in Vredehoek has chemical depression (with a prescription of 10mg of Cipralex per day), high blood pressure, 17 X-RAY scans and the prognosis attached to them, and a pending HIV test.
But more important than Google Health in isolation is when or where Google is going to draw the line. They’ve already branded our planet (Google Earth) so what’s really stopping them from going from the sublime to the ridiculous?
If you’re prepared to open yourself entirely to whatever Google wants to know about you, and if you continue to fill in all their forms and make full use of all their services (ignoring all risks and privacy concerns), here are a few new projects I’d like to suggest to Google, to help you truly become one with your mothership in Mountain View, California:
Google Oxygen — an online tool to help you record how many breaths you take each day, with graphs to display the percentage of nutrients in the air you’re breathing, and the efficacy of your body in processing them. You’ll be allocated a generous limit that will increase monthly in proportion to your Gmail counter. You will also be asked to undergo surgery to insert a transplant Google Lung, with an embedded WiFi transmitter. Costs will be no problem because you’ll be able to have the operation at a Google Clinic, under the expert supervision of a Google Surgeon. Google Spirit — a convenient way for you to back up your spirit/soul/mind for easy access via any Google Body you may inhabit in the future. Via your Google Lung, you’ll be able to quickly download your Spirit in any number of lifetimes (Google’s not going anywhere). You’ll also be able to track your Google LifeLine, an interactive timeline of your reincarnations where you can collaboratively edit your events or invite other Google Spirits to join you in this Google Life on your Google LifeLine. Google Consciousness — once you’ve inhabited your Google Body, transplanted a Google Lung and attached your Google Spirit, Google Consciousness will allow you to transport yourself via Google Teleport to any planet in the Google Galaxy. Start your journey at Google Earth and bypass Google Holes in Gspace with this magnificent 22nd century technology. Note that Alpha users may find Google Limbs detached on the other side but a quick visit to any corner Google Clone store will have you back out and transporting in no Gtime.
Where’s the line? I’ve got mine. Have you got yours?