19 December 2009

Google chief: Only miscreants worry about net privacy

I realize the irony of this post -- I'm putting it on Blogger, which is owned by Google, and this is a post questioning the position of Google on privacy.

With any luck, someone will take notice and think seriously about the privacy issues I'm about to raise.

One of my favorite sites is The Register, which is full of geeky, nerdy news. Their tone is... well... honest. And it doesn't take itself overly seriously, which is nice in this IT world where everyone, it seems, takes themself very, very seriously.

Anyway, I happened upon this post about Google's chief saying basically that only miscreants worry about net privacy. Huh.

I'm not sure what worries me more -- the fact that he equates the need for privacy with wrong-doing, or his seemingly trusting attitude towards authorities who "need" to know people's details, or his off-handedness about what is truly a problematic and potentially disastrous aspect of people's lives.

Here's an example of why privacy concerns can genuinely be about protecting innocent people from authorities who mis-use what they know:

Many years ago, before I got into web development, I was a staff supervisor at a mid-size professional services firm in downtown Boston. I was third in command in the firm administration, reporting directly to the Executive Director and the Director of Human Resources. The firm was in a bad way, financially, and the Director of HR had a penchant for finding out who she could cut from the staff, so she could 'save the firm money' -- and also boost her annual bonus by reducing 'overhead'.

Well, one of my staff (I'll call her Tammi) was a woman who had battled breast cancer several years before. She was the best one I had on my team, and I would have been sunk without her. She had ostensibly won her battle with cancer, and she was in good shape, as far as anyone could tell. That was fortunate, because her husband had been out of work for a while, and she was the sole breadwinner for their family of 4. They had two small kids, and her paycheck was the one thing that kept them afloat.

Well, one day the Director of HR says to me, "How's Tammi doing?" I said she was doing fine, and she was doing a great job. The Dir of HR tells me, "Well, is there anything she's not doing well?" Long story short, she was fishing for a reason to fire Tammi. I asked her why, and she told me -- flat out -- that the firm was concerned that Tammi might get sick again, and if that happened, they'd have to pay short-term disability for her, and they didn't want to pay it. Basically, the firm couldn't afford to have her get sick. So they needed to fire her.

For no reason other than that she had health issues they didn't want to "gamble" on. They knew she had been sick. They knew there was a chance she might get sick again. They didn't have the heart/ability/resources/integrity to willingly employ a perfectly capable and productive employee, because she might get sick.

I spent the next year fighting for Tammi's job -- there was no way in hell I was going to let her go because of some off chance that she might become sick again. She was the best staffer I had, and she knew her stuff. There was no way I was going to put her and her two kids and husband out on the street, because of what might happen.

Unfortunately, Tammi did get sick again. And she did pass away in the time that I was there. But when she passed, she was not unemployed because of what some HR director decided was most beneficial for a firm that had spent so much on booze for the Tall Ships reception they threw for their clients, that they had cases and cases of wine and vodka sitting in storage for years after that.

I left the firm a short time after that. I was through fighting the good fight that should never have to be fought.

So, when I think about what the Google chief has to say about privacy, I think of Tammi, and I wonder if he has any clue that this sort of "staff management" behavior is unfortunately not uncommon. It's patently illegal. It's indefensible. And there are protections under the law. But if someone finds out that you've got a chronic health condition... or you suffered a TBI or developed PTSD in Iraq or Afghanistan... or you suffer intermittently from some inherited illness... people can -- and often will -- find other reasons not to hire you. I have heard many stories from people who made the unfortunate mistake of revealing too much about themselves online -- including health problems -- only to find themselves dumped by people they were interviewing with. (I heard recently that a website for returning vets got started, to educate employers about the challenges that some vets face when they return. The site, I read, was full of good information, but employer responses were less than enthusiastic.)

Now, if someone posts some snarky, bitchy blog post that contradicts their shining example at a job interview, they have only themselves to thank for having a job offer rescinded. But if someone trusts a source like Google to store their health information -- and I mean ALL of their health information -- and some unscrupulous individual with connections or a 'reason" to access the data, gets hold of it, the havoc wreaked can be considerable.

Having your health information stored by a company which equates privacy with a need to conceal wrongdoing... well... let's stop for a moment and ponder the ramifications. Where's their impetus to protect what they've got? And do they even understand the true needs for privacy, versus just wanting to hide out? Do they get the privacy thing at all? And if they don't, what the heck are they doing, storing personal details which can be damning -- in no small part because people don't know enough about how successfully people can deal with certain conditions, and a scary-sounding condition can look pretty alarming and discouraging to a prospective employer... especially if they Google it and find all the worst-case scenarios clearly described.

Don't get me wrong -- I love Google for many, many reasons. But when they get into the business of storing some vitally sensitive information, and their CEO says, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place," then personally I'll seek other solutions for my health records storage and management.

Like my own hard drive.


P.S. My thoughts on using social networking and online communities to troubleshoot serious health issues will come in a later post.

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