Google’s use of personal data — should one worry?

The crackdown on technology giants for massive data collection has intensified in the recent years. Google has been face-to-face with a number of lawsuits. The same goes for Facebook, Amazon and the like.

Few would disagree that no company enjoys as much of a monopoly as Google does with its products across multiple sectors in the tech industry, be it Google search, Android and YouTube for consumers or TensorFlow for Machine Learning developers. Added to this is Google’s unparalleled reputation in the eyes of the public.

The search giant [i.e., Google] has enjoyed an enviable public reputation as an omnipresent yet benevolent force.

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Therefore, to say that Google dominates the market is justified. Hence, it is easy to forget that Google is primarily an advertising company, with a massive 85% of its revenue coming that way.

The key factor that governs this business model is data, because it is users’ data that is used for serving targeted ads. This depends on:

Hence, Google’s investment into its free (of cost) services such as Google Search and YouTube primarily serves two functions:

In a nutshell, this is how the business model works:

There is a popular statement in the tech industry:

If you do not pay for a product, you are the product.

Thus, Google’s true product is not one of their services like YouTube or Chrome, but the user, because the company makes most of its money off the user and not from its services.

The need to worry: analysing some common arguments

Recently, WhatsApp messenger, owned by Facebook, has notified users of its new privacy policy (effective from 8th February, 2021), that mandates the sharing of a large amount of users’ WhatsApp information with Facebook. As a result, Facebook is yet again under fire for its data collection practices to serve its ad-based business model.

We frequently come across a number of arguments in favour of data collection while discussing the topic. Some of them are:

However, nearly all of these arguments are flawed. To understand this, one needs to think from a consumer-centric perspective. Let’s address these arguments one-by-one.

True, this is not entirely Google’s fault; they have mentioned it. But the problem is, these terms and conditions contain a large number of points — and many of them are trivial to the user. The very fact that these tech companies consider collection of so much user data as just another point in their terms and conditions is concerning. Points such as collection of user data, the option to opt out of this and how much data is collected should separately and clearly be conveyed to the user.

The recent backlash against WhatsApp exactly proves this point. Read this extract from The Indian Express.

WhatsApp shares the following information with Facebook and its other companies: account registration information (phone number), transaction data (WhatsApp now has payments in India), service-related information, information on how you interact with others (including businesses), mobile device information, and IP address. It is also collecting more information at a device hardware level now.

What does this show? WhatsApp has already been sharing the above-highlighted user information with Facebook for many years. In 2016, users were once offered the option to opt-out of this within a thirty-day time span, but that’s pretty much it. This sudden backlash shows that the vast majority of the people did not know of this data-sharing practice earlier. The transition that many are making to platforms like Signal and Telegram would have happened much earlier, had people known about this.

So, the same goes for Google’s services. If people were more aware of exactly when, where and how much of their information is shared with Google for advertising, many more would be using privacy-friendly alternatives. Hence, just mentioning this in the terms of use and privacy policy is not enough.

Look at it this way: if a person were constantly monitoring your activities, would you let them to? Even if one has nothing to hide, privacy is a basic right. The ways users’ online data can be compromised are innumerable. It should be easy for the general consumer to be able to work online while staying completely private.

The real problem is the way in which data is being collected. Though companies claim to be transparent about the process, several surveys have shown a general distrust among people towards tech giants. If the process is truly transparent and under proper regulation, there is no problem. As Maureen Ohlhausen, a member of the Federal Trade Commission, United States says:

We should definitely limit the use of data, but not the collection of data.

The Conclusion

One thing to consider in this discussion is that since the collection of so much data for targeted online advertising is a relatively new practice, we ourselves don’t fully know what consequences to expect in the long term. This reminds one of the Cambridge Analytica Scandal where millions of Facebook users’ data was shared with Cambridge Analytica for political advertising without their consent.

The European Union’s actions against these tech giants have been better than the rest of the world. For example, just because of their laws, WhatsApp users in the EU have always had the option to opt-out of data-sharing with Facebook, unlike the rest of the world. Similarly, on Android, EU Users are asked to choose their default search engine and browser unlike rest of the world where it is Google and Chrome by default.

The Cambridge Analytica incident gained infamy only because of its massive scale. One cannot rule out the prospect that a number of such incidents have already taken place and will continue to. The Russian Interference in 2016 US Elections is another reminder of how much important online information has become in the recent years.

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