How Google's call feature could be an affront to privacy

Google recently launched a new Gmail feature that allows users to call telephone numbers around the world from directly within Gmail. It’s a direct challenge to Skype’s domination over the internet call market. With Google’s fingers firmly entrenched in every pie, it creates a worrying trend for everyone’s privacy.

For those who doubt the possible exodus from Skype to Google we have only to look at a statistic released today by Google itself: “Over 1,000,000 calls placed from Gmail in just 24 hours!” That’s a lot of calls.

Of course, Gmail has 175 million monthly users and many of them may have been tempted to try out the new feature on launch day, so potentially those call numbers could go down when the novelty wears off. Or, the numbers might go up, as the feature is currently only available to US users. When Google finally launches it around the world we can expect a further boom to calls which may give Skype a serious run for its money.

TechEye spoke to Skype to see how threatened it felt by Google’s entry into the market, but it fobbed us off: “In regards to Google’s new Gmail calling feature, unfortunately Skype isn’t in a position to be able to comment at this time.”

We also asked if it could provide call figures to compare them with Google’s statistics, but Skype said it “cannot release calling statistics”. The reluctance to comment and reveal statistics makes us wonder if Skype really is worried about Big G stepping on its turf.

The problem for Skype is that Google is now offering free calls to and within the United States and Canada – and calls as low as $0.02 per minute to most of Europe. Skype’s US rates are around $0.024 per minute, while the EU rates are €0.02 per minute. That’s roughly the same price and still much less than using a standard telephone, but the free calls in the US and Canada clearly give it the advantage in that region.

Calls to European mobiles, however, are significantly more expensive, such as $0.18 per minute to the UK but that’s still cheaper than Skype does ’em.

Money talks. If Google eventually rolls out free calls in more regions, since it gets so much dosh from advertising anyway, people will flock to it in droves regardless of what potential privacy invasions may result.And there may be many.

Firstly, Google can send you text transcripts of your voicemail straight to your email account, which sounds handy at face value, but means that it now becomes another message for Google to trawl through, like it can do with all Gmail messages. This means, if it wants, and it does, it can present more targeted ads based on your voice conversations.

It also opens doors for Schmidt’s gang to monitor and save your voice chat, which sounds just a little bit like phone tapping. Speaking of phone tapping, we shouldn’t forget Google’s links with the CIA.

Secondly, the privacy risk may not come from Google itself. TechEye Teuton John W. Daly reckons: “The NSA eavesdrop on foreign communications, not chatter inside the US itself. It is likely that Google will have to supply a backdoor to US agencies for eavesdropping.” With this feature currently limited to the US that may not be a major worry. However, Skype may also share this risk, particularly on US servers.

Thirdly, Google may not intentionally log call data, but we all know what they say about the road to Hell and good intentions. Google’s Street View snooping fiasco is an example of just how intrusive the search giant can be and yet bandy about the word “accidental”. It has basically also gotten off scot-free all over the shop. Which gives it the message that it can do pretty much anything it likes. What is to stop it from “accidentally” logging all your phone calls as well?

Finally, Google’s empire is growing extremely quickly. While it has contributed some great software and technology amidst this expansion, there is a risk of it swelling in so many sectors that it eventually has too much power, creating an entity that Winston Smith would have feared. Or is it already there? Google knows a lot about us from its search engine and email services alone. Do we really need to supply it with our phone calls as well?

TechEye spoke to Dylan Sharpe, Campaign Director at privacy group Big Brother Watch, about just how dangerous Google might become.

“Whether or not there is any overt privacy threat from using Gmail calls is not yet clear, however this does represent the latest move by Google towards a monopoly of our online communications.”

“As the CEO, Eric Schmidt, admitted recently, people have to be more careful about what they put on the internet and how they use online services. At Big Brother Watch we would be wary of giving too much information to any one company – especially Google.”

He was referring to a recent warning Schmidt gave about a future without privacy, where he said that “people aren’t ready for the technology revolution that’s going to happen to them,” a future where Google knows just about everything there is to know about you. The more we think about it, the more we think it’s already arrived.