Pando

Google beats privacy with convenience once again, but hey, at least CAPTCHAs are dead

By Nathaniel Mott , written on December 3, 2014

From The News Desk

Google's attempt to use convenience as a trump card against privacy continues today with the news that the company will no longer ask people to transcribe almost-illegible scribbles to prove they're humans instead of automated software. The CAPTCHA is dead -- and the idea that there is some data Google won't use for some purpose or another is dead with it.

I'm not going to argue that CAPTCHAs didn't suck. Reading those things was never easy, and the robotic voice that speaks a word if you couldn't read whatever distorted image was presented enunciated about as well as a tongueless man eating a jar of peanut butter. I am just as happy that Google replaced CAPTCHAs with a single checkbox as the next person.

The idea that Google can determine someone's humanity based on the way they clicked that checkbox (along with other information, such as their IP address or the "cookies" found in their browser) is still troubling. And knowing that the company is gathering this data all the time is even worse, especially because there's not much most consumers can do to stop it.

But both of those concerns pale in comparison to the flip remark Google's Vinay Shet, the CAPTCHA team's product manager, gave Wired in response to privacy concerns. As he said:

Google’s Shet points out that when its captchas appear on other sites, Google will only be able to track the user’s movements over the captcha widget, not the whole page. And he argues that captchas are, by their very nature, good for privacy: They provide a way to show you’re a good user, rather than an evil bot, without logging in to a service or coughing up identifying details. 'You don’t have to verify your identity,' Shet says, 'to verify your humanity.'
Let's not pretend that using someone's approximate location, a snippet of their browser history, and their movement around a CAPTCHA box is really less invasive than signing in to Facebook. All of that information is valuable -- otherwise Google wouldn't collect it to inform the advertisements on top of which it's built a monument to for-profit surveillance tools.

And let's not forget that Google has a habit of overstepping the limits of what consumers will allow it to learn about them only to blame the problem on a technical issue when it's caught. Just look at the Street View scandal from a few years ago, which saw the company collecting data from unprotected WiFi networks with its fleet of cars, all without serious punishment.

So here we have once again a case where Google is demonstrating the amount of data it can gather, the disregard with which it considers concerns about how that data is used, and the ease with which it can convince everyone to look the other way because it's making life a bit more convenient. Does that sound familiar? Because at this point, it really, really should.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]