December 9, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
This fall, Google announced new privacy features that will allow users to auto-delete Google Maps searches and YouTube history, as well as manually delete Google Assistant commands.
While these features are a concession to critics who have demanded the company address privacy and security concerns, they ultimately don’t change the fact that Google’s business model – like many other companies’ that rely on advertising revenue – is still reliant on exploiting users’ privacy.
While these companies’ accumulation of data in part allows them to make targeted content recommendations to users, they ultimately make their money mainly by using this data to target us with ads. These new privacy features are helpful tools, but Google’s model continues to function around a utilization of our data and the “detailed profiles” it builds on us – profiles that are now more comprehensive than ever before. The advent of digital assistant and smart home tools enables the company to collect an even wider array of information about our habits, preferences, quirks – and as we learned this past summer, even our conversations.
This July, news broke that Google permitted contract workers to eavesdrop on conversations recorded by Google Assistant, some of which had been recorded accidentally, without the device user speaking the “wake word” that prompts the machine to listen. Given this disturbing revelation, it’s difficult to avoid assuming that the release of these privacy features is anything other than an expertly orchestrated public relations move aimed at appeasing a concerned public and perhaps softening any future federal privacy legislation that comes out of Congress.
And these accidental recordings are just the tip of the iceberg. Google gathers its data by scanning our email for keywords as well as tracking our searches and locations. One reporter requested access to his data last year and found that his personal file could fill millions of Word documents. The new features mean that some of this data isn’t being saved long-term – but it doesn’t mean it isn’t still being utilized, or that it’s no longer being used to create personalized advertising profiles. According to Google, what’s really happening is that “new AI techniques allow us to do more with less data.”
Ultimately, we are still “paying for” our usage of these platforms with our personal information, and we still don’t know where that information is going.
What’s changed with Google, essentially, is that users are able to alter their settings if they choose to do so. What hasn’t changed is the fundamental approach to gathering data for targeted advertising. We find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Google has grown into the dominant search engine in the market, and has become a de facto monopoly in search. As long as this monopoly persists, consumers will have little choice but to compromise their privacy, every time they send an email, search a term or make a purchase.
Certainly, there are dozens of different data platforms that thrive off similar tactics of offering a service for “free,” in exchange for the ability to capture a multitude of personal data for purposes of advertising or resale. The Wall Street Journal, for example, revealed earlier this year that Facebook may have data on weight, your menstrual cycle or the budget range for your home purchase. This shouldn’t shock users, but it did: A Pew study released at the beginning of the year revealed that almost three-quarters of respondents didn’t know Facebook collected a list of their ad preferences.
Google, among them, however, has demonstrated the greatest monopoly power, possibly only closely matched by that of Facebook. There’s a reason a growing number of presidential candidates have included in their proposals the regulation of large technology companies like Google and Facebook. We’re increasingly recognizing that this data- and-ad-based business model isn’t sustainable, because it will always come at the price of privacy. Roger McNamee, one of Facebook’s earliest advisers, has argued vehemently that the company needs to change its business model. “In the advertising business, you basically get all the data you can get about your users and then you monetize it any way you can,” he said.
The question then becomes what we ought to do to protect our privacy. Consumers should be able to opt in to sharing their information on these platforms – but they should also be informed about what information is being used and where it’s going. Some have urged private-sector based solutions; McNamee, for instance, suggests “a new model of authentication for website access” that “would store private data on the device, not in the cloud” – similar to Apple’s model.
Others recommend a regulatory approach comparable to the General Data Protection Regulation model of the European Union, which requires companies to receive consent from individuals before collecting their data. It’s a strong model, designed to create an internet ecosystem where privacy, rather than data collection, is the default mode. However, knowledge and consent is really just a sham, when a site like Google has monopoly power that effectively limits consumer choice as to alternatives.
Regardless of what approach we ultimately take, however, there must be action. We cannot allow ourselves to be deceived. Features like Google’s new YouTube history auto-delete option don’t address this big-picture issue – they only put a band-aid on a greater wound. Only by holding these companies accountable and addressing the fundamental problems of the ad-based business model can we ensure that the internet lives up to its promises and truly works for everyone.
Thomas F. Kelly is president and CEO of ID Experts, a Portland, Oregon-based provider of data breach and identity protection services, such as MyIDCare; he is a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur and an expert in cybersecurity technologies.
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Correction: A previous version of this op-ed misstated the announcement timing for Google’s new privacy features.