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illustration by Victoria Dudys

Has Google created a monster?

THIS PAST WEEK, Google, Internet giant and official verb, celebrated its 13th anniversary. Amidst happy celebrations throughout the Googleverse, many Google Chrome and Gmail users found themselves wondering one thing: “Didn’t this thing start as just a search engine?”

The answer: Yes, yes it did.

Perhaps no one but the company’s head honchos anticipated that this strangely named site would grow from a mere alternative to Yahoo! or Ask Jeeves to our one-stop connection to the Internet and an automatic information-amassing conglomerate.

I know I’m not the only one almost entirely locked into Google’s walled-garden business model—a model designed to make sure the user never has to go anywhere else for their Internet experience, or in Google’s case, their life experience. I have a Gmail account, I network on Google+, I write on Google Blogger, my homepage is set to iGoogle, I use Google Maps for getting around, and I can say with certainty that my professors would be horrified to learn how much research I’ve done on Google Reader and Google Books.

In fact, there are only two times I really have to leave Google pages, and that’s to check my Twitter and Facebook.

My Internet experience becomes much more convenient with every new account I tie into Google. That said, the site’s ability to provide links related to my current location—without my entering a location at all—and give me a sidebar filled with ads suspiciously related to my interests is starting to worry me. Not to mention Google Earth encouraging me to mark the location of “Home” with a push-pin.

It all begs the question: How much is too much? Google uses software to electronically read and track keywords in our emails and searches, building up a profile of each user that is added to each time they log into their accounts. If I mention in an email that I’m seeing a show at Mavericks, it’s highly likely the next sidebar to show up while I do an online search will either mention the venue or the band I intend to see. The company isn’t just tracking our computer’s location with a multitude of cookies, but they’re tracking everything we send and search while logged in, no matter where we are in the world.

With Google Android phones equipped with GPS, the company has access to where you are at any time, with street view images to match. And don’t be fooled into thinking they’re keeping this information to themselves; Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, has admitted that Google has the ability to determine your exact location and estimate your next one.

While, from a business standpoint, the ever-expanding growth of Google makes for an impressive anecdote, their ethics are still extremely questionable.

Due to our dependence on technology, is this something we just need to accept? Given how much we blog, tweet, and update our statuses, we’re basically telling all our friends what we’re doing every minute of the day anyway. Do we have the right to be concerned about the possibility of a third party piecing that together with a trail of emails, searches, and phone calls, or is it different when a company is amassing this information without our explicit consent?

As I sit here faced with my growing list of Google pages, I think it may be time to seriously rethink my relationship with convenience—and, more than likely, it’s time you do the same.

—Eleni Armenakis