Google Me, Google You: Data Privacy and Data Gathering

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Click to learn more about author Cathy Nolan.

Who hasn’t Googled their name at one time or another? It can be affirming, as in “Wow, they know I gave a presentation at a conference”, or scary as in “Wow, they know I have a police record!”  Yes, there isn’t much they don’t know, and it’s not only your address, date of birth, names of your children and favorite vacation spot.  Here are some other things Google has stored in its archives about you – every single place you’ve every searched including Google Maps; every news article you’ve read on Google news; every YouTube video you’ve ever watched; all the comments you’ve made; and most disturbing, all of your Gmail files including what you have sent to TRASH and thought you DELETED.

Since Google sells this information, you can find the categories of topics Google tells advertisers you are interested in by going to Google Ad Settings. You may be surprised at what Google says is relevant, mine indicates I am interested in Bars, Clubs & Nightlife, Skiing & Snowboarding, Gourmet Foods, and Investing – all of which are wrong, but make me seem much more interesting than I really am.  You can change the categories to make ads across the web more relevant for you, but you cannot delete what Google has already collected.

What you CAN do is to go to Google’s activity controls and turn off Web and App Activity, the YouTube Search History and the Location History.  You won’t be able to easily go back to websites you visited in the past, but at least Google won’t continue storing where you go and what sites you access.

Don’t get too smug when you change settings however, you have not stopped Google’s data gathering.  According to Christopher Mims, writing in the Wall Street Journal,

“Google Analytics is far and away the web’s most dominant Analytics platform. Used on the sites of about half of the biggest companies in the U.S., it has a total reach of 30 to 50 million sites and Google Analytics tracks you whether or not you are logged in”.

He goes on to say Google “is the biggest enabler of data harvesting, through the world’s two billion active Android mobile devices.”  Google collects additional data by working with some of the more than 4,000 data brokers in the U.S. insuring that there isn’t much they don’t know about you. Changing “settings” might slow down some of the privacy invasion, but by no means will it curtail all of the personal data gathering.

Thrown into the midst of the debate over how much personal data Google and the other big-tech companies should be allowed to access and keep, Google has decided to add a couple new items to its services, a product called Duplex and another named Smart Compose.  Duplex is a voice-based digital assistant which can book appointments for you using Artificial Intelligence.  Smart Compose suggests words and phrases based on what you type on your computer.  There is no question that both products will collect more data about you.

How does a product such as Duplex “learn” to ask questions and respond to inquiries?  Well, remember those talking toys you bought your kids and the Google mini you have in your living room?  These are two examples of products that learn from listening to how humans interact with each other.  While Duplex isn’t smart enough yet to do more than a few specific tasks, Google is researching how they can use AI to mimic human responses.  And with Smart Compose almost anyone will be able to write a professional-sounding email, or in the case of students, amaze their instructors with impressive writing skills.

Do we need really need Duplex to make restaurant reservations, arrange car maintenance or book tickets to a ballgame?  Google would like to think so, but there are a couple hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is whether Duplex should identify itself as non-human when it makes a call.  At the same time, Google is hyping Smart Compose as a service that in their words, “suggests complete sentences in your emails so that you can draft them with ease.”

It operates in the background so you can write an email like you normally would, and Smart Compose will offer suggestions as you type. In their example, an email written on Friday would automatically end with “Have a great weekend”.    And I thought we were supposed to make emails shorter to speed up getting through the hundreds we receive every day—TLDR (too long, didn’t read) or RSTD (read some then deleted)!

Why, you may ask, am I only writing about Google when we know Facebook and some other big-tech companies are just as guilty of data gathering and privacy incursion?  The main reason is that Facebook has had its methods picked over in the newspapers and media ever since the Cambridge Analytica affair, but little has been written about Google.

I want you to be aware that using Google and Google-based aps are exposing your data just as much as Facebook – but sometimes it’s not as apparent.  And Google has the almost unlimited power of its search engines to point you toward one advertisement or article over another by how they place things when you do a search.   How many people go to page 3 or beyond to research a product or read a review?  The success of a business may hinge on whether it shows up on the first page of the search results.  Up to now Google has been focused on making money by steering our online buying habits since they can charge more for putting a product first on a page, but they are also capable of steering our political and social views, our charitable giving, our job searches and many other aspects of our lives.

Since the Federal government is dragging its feet on privacy protection, California has introduced the California Consumer Privacy Act, a November ballot initiative that would give consumers three basic protections not unlike the provisions in the European GDPR.  The three are:  the right to tell a business not to sell or share your personal information, the right to know where and to whom your data is being sold or shared, and the right to know your service providers are protecting your information.  Google, by the way, is opposing the legislation.  Should your state be giving voters the same chance to cast their ballot for Data Privacy?  Maybe it’s time to send some of those Smart Compose emails to your congressmen!

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