Use Google? Time to Get Real About Protecting Your Digital Self

Google's decided to integrate the data it has about you, which means you better think about the digital tracks you're leaving. 

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Search, browser, email. These are the most essential tools of an Internet-connected life, and for many of us, Google offers the best of breed. Aside from sharing a common log-in, it hasn't been clear how complete Google's consolidated view of any given user might be across its suite of products -- until yesterday. Now it is patently clear: Going forward, Google is compiling its user data across all of its products, resulting in an omniscient, informed, one-true profile of you, all in the name of serving you more relevant information -- and, of course, ads.

This comes as no surprise. It was only a matter of time before Google pulled together its rich data stores across all its products. In fact, I'm surprised that it's taken them this long (and it says something about the effort that it must have taken to coordinate data across disjointedly engineered product lines). And can we blame them for doing it? It's in Google's business interests to create the most complete view of an individual user as possible, all to feed the profit engine of advertising that makes up 96 percent  of its revenues.

Hints of user-data consolidation started dropping last summer and early fall, with the introduction of Google+. While everyone was focusing on whether it was a Facebook killer, I was more stuck on comments like the following, from Bradley Horowitz, Google's Vice President of Product for Google+:

Until now, every single Google property acted like a separate company. Due to the way we grew, through various acquisitions and the fierce independence of each division within Google, each product sort of veered off in its own direction. That was dizzying. But Google+ is Google itself. We're extending it across all that we do -- search, ads, Chrome, Android, Maps, YouTube -- so that each of those services contributes to our understanding of who you are.

With the tool bar redesign and the introduction of that ubiquitous red notification button, it seemed like a constant reminder that Google was always watching, whether you were searching, chatting, or consuming news. Perhaps because that red icon reminded me of HAL, I could sense that this was the insidious start of Google's encroaching sphere of influence over users. Now Google is blurring the lines across products in its engagement metrics -- saying, for example, that 60 percent of Google+ users "use Google products on a daily basis" (emphasis added). 

We've begun to see the material effects of Google's data consolidation in the form of Search Plus Your World, and we don't necessarily like it. All antitrust concerns aside, the idea that Google is introducing social filters to organize the world's information is concerning to some, and makes Eli Pariser's warnings look eerily prescient.

To me, the result of this consolidation that gives me cause for concern is the fundamental integration of my entire digital life. When you start pulling together email data with browser data, that really begins to paint a near-complete picture of a life lived on the internet. It's not just search terms, not just circles of friends. It's every last digital scrap of me. As we've moved to cloud-based services, browsers have become the first and perhaps the only application we need to open to get things done on our computers or our phones. I've come to terms with the fact that the convenience of internet-enabled life involves a data trail, but now Google is demanding free reign (March 1 going forward) to piece those data trails together with all the other bits of information it has collected about us. 

I've long thought that we as users aren't critical enough of the relationships we enter into with platforms like Facebook and Google that offer up valuable services in exchange for our data. To me, it's an issue not only of privacy, but of personal data literacy. I wonder if this is the point at which the average Google user begins to become more critical, more circumspect about her exposure to the company. Are these consolidated privacy policies and terms of service simple enough to make clear the reality of our data exposure? Enough to shake us up a bit?

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Sara M. Watson is a technology critic and a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

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