DON’T BE EVIL*
* Unless profitable
Google watches your every step, whether you like it or not. Today is Data Privacy Day. Let’s review the abusive behavior of Google and start a discussion about how we fix it.
While Google’s support page states that “you can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored”, it turns out that this isn’t actually true.
On August 13, 2018 an Associated Press feature revealed that Google is tracking user movements even when the user explicitly opted out of it! Such location tracking took place not just when Google products were actively in use, but even during background activities such as automatic weather updates on Android phones. Worldwide, around two billion users of Android devices and several hundred million iPhone users relying on Google apps are affected by this privacy issue. Background data collection is ubiquitous; in the past, Facebook has been criticized for logging texts and phone calls in the background, Uber was found to track user location even after the Uber ride had ended, and the list goes on. In most cases, the problem could be avoided by simply not installing the app in question — but with Google, considering its market position and ownership of Android, the data collection boundaries are considerably more blurry.
Around the same time it became known that Google has plans to re-enter the Chinese market, which it abandoned eight years ago due to censorship concerns. If anything the Chinese government has only increased its grip on free speech in the meantime, but Google seems to have come to the realization that moral issues are a small price to pay at the sight of the huge Chinese market that awaits.
Alas, this is only one example of how American tech companies are attempting to tailor their products to enter the Chinese market, even if that means restricting free speech. LinkedIn employs censors to remove unfavorable content from their Chinese platform, Amazon and Apple are now committed to save user data in local data centers, which Chinese officials are able to access if necessary.
Facebook — despite efforts to develop software that suppresses certain posts from appearing on the social network — has not yet gained approval by Chinese authorities to deploy their product there.
The development of a search engine that will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall — a project with the code name Dragonfly — has been carried out in relative secrecy. But about 1,400 employees have now signed a letter demanding transparency around the tech company’s return to China and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who is leading the effort in China, addressed the issue during an internal meeting. According to Pichai, the company is “exploring many options”, and is “more committed to transparency than probably any company in the world”.
Sure. And sure enough, from a capitalist’s perspective, a modern corporation of the size and reach of Google is only doing what it’s supposed to be doing (although this does not explain why it feels the need to mislead its users on location tracking). And yet, there is something unsettling about collaborations between influential companies and governments to oppress their people, and it is not difficult to imagine how Dragonfly could become a template for many other nations.
It has become evident that we cannot continue to rely on large tech companies to “not be evil”. The entire business model of some of the most valuable companies in the world — including Facebook and Google — rests on unrestricted access to personal data. At the same time the tech giants have a powerful presence in Washington and beyond, and they fight hard to protect their business model.
In the end it is up to you — the user — to draw the line. If you find yourself to disagree with the company’s practices, delete your Google account. Use a different e-mail provider. Use different search engines such as DuckDuckGo. Stay informed and continue to hold the data collectors responsible. If only a few people do this, these activities might not have much effect. But if we all work together to build awareness, it will not be difficult to reach a critical mass and force the tech giants to change their ways.
At the same time, there already are a number of organizations — Insights Network being one of them — on a mission to decentralize the current infrastructure. Our aim in particular is to build a secure consumer data framework allowing users to remain in control over their data, to remove the central host corporation that currently has access to the personal nature of user data and to provide a platform on which advertisers and data requesters may interact directly with users. This shall create an ethical and moral environment for humanity to share its information, ensuring rapid progress towards systemic improvement and an efficient global economy that works for everyone.