Privacy was Google’s big message at I/O 2019. Sundar Pichai has even penned an opinion piece in the New York Times, arguing that ‘privacy cannot be a luxury good’, seen as a dig at its rival Apple, which has always touted how their products are secure and do not collect user data.
The timing of Google’s message is nonetheless interesting. Another big tech company in Silicon Valley: Facebook is facing heat over its handling of user privacy. And even Mark Zuckerberg insisted at the F8 conference that the ‘future is private’ and wanted everyone to believe that the company was going to build a future ‘private’ social network. Though everyone, including Zuckerberg, knows Facebook’s record on privacy does not inspire confidence.
But Google’s big privacy push is a lot more important than Facebook’s considering the reach and scale of its software products, and the sheer amount of, very personal, data the company is handling. It also needs a lot more discussion and highlighting, especially from Google.
Scale of Google products
Android is powering more than 2.5 billion active devices, and many of the users are first-time smartphone and internet users, who perhaps are not even aware of why privacy is crucial online. YouTube’s biggest audience is in India, Google Maps remains the de facto navigation product for many in India and across the world and the popularity of Google Search has never really been challenged.
The Chrome browser dominates the browser market. Then there are newer Google products like Home with the AI-powered Google Assistant, which wants to be more helpful, but requires that users share more and more personal information in exchange.
Not just your calendar schedule, Google Assistant could soon know exactly who to call when you say ‘Call Mom,’ though the company insists this will only happen if you choose to share such personal information. It also promises you will be able to delete this information.
The point is simple: Unless you live off the grid, you are likely dependent on more than one Google product, even on iOS. Apple too acknowledges that Google is the built-in search option on Safari because they are the best.
Privacy by design?
The privacy steps from Google therefore are doubly important. The company wants to make it easier to let users delete their data from the service. It now gives the option of deleting ‘Web & App’ activity and users will be able to choose how long Google should keep the data.
The options range from Keep until user deletes manually, delete after three months or delete after 18 months. The default setting is of course keep the data, till the user chooses an option. In my view, it would have shown a greater commitment to privacy if the default option was that the data will be automatically deleted after 18 months, rather than putting the onus on the user to find and change these settings.
Google plans to extend this option to Location History as well. For those who are not aware, just go to Location History for your Google Account and you will find it has data on nearly every place you have travelled to in the world.
Every single flight, even transits, is all there. Right now there is the option to permanently delete all this data, if you can spot the Trash Can symbol on the Timeline history. Soon the user will have the option of ensuring this kind of data can be deleted every three months or 18 months as they prefer.
Privacy on Chrome is also being improved with Google cracking down on third-party cookies that track users. Again this is a much needed move, though Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox already offer more drastic steps for those who value privacy.
More data, more risk
The problem with Google’s privacy steps is that the onus is entirely on the user. Yes, the option for greater privacy is there, provided you bother to find it. Find the settings, reduce the amount of data Google is storing.
And that’s something many of the newer users are unlikely to understand. Even those who are well-versed with Google products will might never end up using these features. One can argue users worried about privacy should take the needed steps, they cannot blame these companies.
Fair enough. But privacy by design should mean that default effort from the company, be it Google or Facebook, reduces data storage, especially for longer periods.
Collection and storing of location data, web search history forever does pose a privacy risk for many of Google’s users. It is very easy to create a profile of someone should someone else get access to their Google Account. And for those living in countries with authoritarian regimes, the kind of data access can mean the difference between life and death.
Pichai is right when he says ‘privacy is for everyone’. It cannot be viewed as a concern of the elite, an argument that is often made in India when anyone talks about privacy. And it is good that he does not wish to wait for regulation to fix this problem. But Google will need to more than just tweaking settings across its products to highlight its new found emphasis on privacy.
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