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

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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?

I'm convinced that Google, too, sees this as a very delicate moment. That's where this Good to Know campaign comes from--a rare print advertising campaign to reach the Luddites and Ron Swansons of the world, who tend to be more wary of putting things online than your average college student. In addition to luring in the untapped crowds who are still getting their news in print, the campaign is also aimed at reaching the marginally inquisitive user (the type whose gotten more curious after reading an article from What They Know) with "Jargon Buster" real English explanations of things like cookies and IP addresses. They do a decent job of simply explaining how these things work and how they make services on the web more "useful." Google deserves kudos for making these traditionally dense policies more user-friendly. And to Google writers' credit, you can't argue with the idea that relevance based on increasingly detailed browsing, email, location, and search history makes our lives easier, and results more relevant. But it's not without trade offs.

I hope policy changes like this will give users an opportunity to reflect on our exposure to Google and other tech companies. Perhaps this is the mental model we needed: the existence of a complete user data profile of our entire internet history, which Google asks us to sign away for use of its free services. Will this idea be big enough -- and simple enough -- to get more people to think critically about our data trails?

To what end, you might ask? What does awareness matter if we still to go on using Google's search engine? It matters a lot. If I'm more aware of my data relationship to Google, I might think twice about entering a search term as innocuous as "incontinence" or as damning as "divorce lawyer." I might think twice about buying an Android phone. This is about thinking through behaviors and platform choices.

Being more critical about our data exposure starts to really matter when we look at the more extreme implications of these user data profiles. Google notes that they don't share our data externally except in rare circumstances of court orders. But we know that Google's complying with 94 percent of those requests to date. Google's shifting policy on real name registration perhaps inspired emerging policies for microblogs in China, where the requirement will be expressly used for governmental monitoring purposes. While I think it's sensationalizing to suggest that these policy changes signal Google has flipped to the dark side, it's also naive to think that Google will always stand up to it's "Don't Be Evil" mantra. As Siva Vaidhyanathan has suggested, we must always assume that the defaults will be set in Google's economic favor, that we shouldn't be fooled by statements of corporate fundamentalism, and that we can't assume that Google's benevolence will last forever. Fear mongering isn't helpful, but we could all use a more critical approach when it comes to our online lives.

Personally, I'm inspired to find ways of disentangling myself from my complete and utter reliance on Google products. It's the kick in the pants I needed to export my bookmarks and switch back to Firefox as my default browser. And perhaps I'll start uploading new pictures to Flickr (which for infuriating log-in reasons, I skipped over when deciding on a photo uploading site last year). But I'll admit, I won't be giving up Gmail or moving my searches over to Bing anytime soon. I'm not calling for a boycott by any means, I'm just looking for a little more critical public discourse on our data.

We must each begin to test our thresholds for levels of exposure and begin to question the nature of our relationships with these companies. We must ask ourselves, at what point does Google know more about me than I'm comfortable with? And we must think about these questions not only based on companies' postures today, but on their unpredictable potential use down the road.

Image: Alexis Madrigal.

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Sara Marie Watson studies personal data and privacy at the Oxford Internet Institute. 

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