google-parasiteGoogle is a parasite, but it doesn’t make any effort to hide this fact. The search giant gathers information from anyone who uses its services, and in exchange it offers products like email and a mobile operating system compelling enough to make people accept their communications, locations, and searches are being monitored. The company doesn’t latch onto an unwilling host so much as it seduces them into offering up their personal information. While it might be depressing to consider the implications of a society that collectively values convenience more than privacy, that’s otherwise unremarkable news.

Other companies, however, aren’t so honest about their attempts to use consumers as an endless supply of valuable (and personal) data. Just look at Verizon, which has announced a rewards program called, unimaginatively, Smart Rewards  that offers benefits to people who pay their bills or renew their contract with the company. The problem with this seemingly benevolent loyalty program is that joining it also requires enrollment in another far more insidious program called Selects that allows the company to collect and sell its customers’ location and browsing data.

Sounds a bit too much like like those “free” browser toolbars that used to come with shareware software downloads, but then can never be uninstalled for my liking.

The Associated Press describes the rigmarole consumers must go through to sign up for the rewards and monitoring programs and then, if they don’t want their location and browsing information to be sold to advertisers, leave the monitoring program behind. Then, for good measure, it explains the defense Verizon uses to ease concern about the monitoring program:

Enrollment in Selects is mandatory for subscribers who want to start taking advantage of Smart Rewards, but they can then leave Selects and keep using Smart Rewards. Those who stay with Selects get additional Smart Rewards points every month.

Verizon Wireless says the Selects program doesn’t give any personally identifiable information to advertisers. Verizon says the program differs little from Web advertising programs like Google Inc.’s, which uses vast amounts of personal data for ad-targeting. But the addition of location data gleaned from cell towers makes Selects a test of where subscribers will set their privacy limits.

Verizon’s defense amounts to little more than a corporate version of “but Google did it first!”

It doesn’t matter that Google is clear about the data it collects and why all of its services are free, while Verizon is bundling an intrusive program with a program that would otherwise have nothing to do with the collection or sale of personal data to advertisers. How many people will sign up for the rewards program because they want free shit for paying their phone bill online, only to find that they also gave Verizon permission to gather more information than it otherwise could?

But perhaps the biggest problem is that many consumers might decide to give Verizon access to this information simply because they’ve already offered similar data to Google. Like many parasites, Google has made it easier for other critters to attach themselves to their hosts — by which I mean ordinary people who might object to being called “hosts” until they realize that the term is wholly accurate — without offering similar benefits. (In the grand scheme of things I would say that Google’s services are a better reward than a gift card to the Verizon store.)

Google is a parasite that works its way into its host with compelling services. Verizon is also a parasite, but it’s trying to work its way into consumers by tricking them with an inconsequential service that’s hiding a big secret. I suppose that makes foolish hosts of anyone willing to trade their privacy for attractive services and then, because we live in the age of “fuck it, might as well,” offer that same information to a telecommunications company for little in return.

[image adapted from wikimedia]