A week or so ago, a paper was published outlining just how much — and how frequently — Google collects our personal data through devices running Android and Chrome.
It was written by Douglas C. Schmidt, Professor of Computer Science at Vanderbilt University, who my colleague, Jerry Hildenbrand of Android Central said is:
... very well-versed in Android.
The Google distortion field
The paper is framed as follows:
While the public has been focused on the ongoing Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, Google has largely avoided public scrutiny about its data collection practices despite having the ability to collect far more personal data about consumers across a variety of touchpoints.
Google enjoys a reality distortion field beyond what even Steve Jobs was attributed with at the hight of his product marketing prowess. When Jobs took to stage or to comment, there was never any lack pushback by tech press and pundits who just didn't like what he was selling. Especially open source advocates who, Mach Kernels and WebKit frameworks aside, didn't like how controlling or proprietary Apple was with the vast majority of its products.
Google, though, has always enjoyed an incredible benefit of the doubt. Even the staunchest, hippiest, most neck-bearded nerds on the net seem happy enough to ignore the massive proprietary product stack of everything from Search to AdSense to Play Services, because the Android Open Source Project could, theoretically, be built into a functional phone by Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, or, you know, a real person with similar skills and resources.
I'm not saying Google's reality distortion field should be pointed out more than Apple's or anyone else's. I'm just saying they should all be pointed out, always.
Not tracking... Just kidding!
There have been efforts to document individual practices by Google such as their efforts to circumvent controls on Safari. More recently, an investigation by the Associated Press revealed that Google continues to track location data even after a consumer has turned off the setting.
I've turned off tracking and other data collection what feels like a dozen times on a dozen different settings pages and devices and, whenever a new one is linked, I go there and somehow still find all the tracking turned on. It's like Google honors privacy requests about as often as Apple puts it's products on deep discount.
While these research efforts have been important to the public policy dialogue, no research exists which looks at the breadth and depth of data collected by Google.
So, that's what Schmidt set out to do. Now, as to what he found, here, again, is my colleague from Android Central, Jerry Hildenbrand:
I've read the report and think it's well written, impeccably sourced, and factually sound. In other words, what Dr. Schmidt (no relation to former Google exec Eric Schmidt) says is absolutely true in my opinion.
The truth about Google data collection
And that truth?
- An Android Phone running Chrome, even if it's just sitting on a table and no one is using it, will send Google location information, on average, 14 times an hour — 340 times a day.
- By comparison, an iPhone running Safari, also just sitting on a table not being used, couldn't collect any data for Google unless or until you picked it up and started using Google apps and services.
- That Android Phone, just sitting there alone on the table, communicates with Google 10x more than that iPhone sitting alone on the table does Apple.
- A major part of Google's data collection occurs when the user isn't directly engaging with any of its products, and that's significant given how many people have Android devices running Google software and services on them all the time.
- Google can associate the passive, anonymous data it collects this way with your personal information, largely through advertising technologies that Google controls. Likewise, it can associate quote-unquote anonymous advertising identifiers accumulated from third-party websites, through the device-level data collected via Android.
Back to Jerry:
I hate the amount of data Google collects from me. Full stop. I think it's insane what they harvest as well as how they harvest it. But I love what they do with it.
Why people use Google
There seems to be three broad groups of reactions to the amount of data Google, and, sure, Facebook, collect about us:
- People who just don't understand or don't care. Free services. Take my data. Suckers.
- People who understand what they're paying in data but feel like what they're getting in return is worth it. Free-as-in-Google. Fair deal.
- People who believe their data is too valuable or privacy too important to give away just to get some dopy internet services. What are all you people on?
See, data is the great equalizer. Everyone has different amounts of money and time, but we all have roughly the same amount of personal data. We're all data rich. So, paying with data often seems as trivial to us as buying a $25,000 item of clothing or plane ticket must feel to an oligarch or pop star.
Unless and until a time comes when a small sampling can be projected out across a lifetime, and the big internet companies decide we have to do more for them to keep getting our services fix, we're all benefitting from the data mining gold rush. We're all information billionaires.
The cost of free
But what does that make the big internet companies? What does that make Facebook, and, yeah, throw Amazon in there too, and, in this case, Google?
Google collecting data helps improve the company's bottom line. Google is not a smartphone company or even a search company. It is an online advertising company, one that happens to employ talented people who build amazing products and services that most everyone loves. Google collecting user data means you can get travel information and see which bar is the best and know if you should take a surfboard or rain jacket when you visit Hatteras next weekend. This isn't a case where some folks down the street are keeping tabs on you — it's a giant company collecting anonymized user data and having computer algorithms sort through it. There is nobody at Google who has a job reading your browser history. Nobody wants to have a job reading your browser history.
My main concern here is that we know from history what people want and what happens are two different things.
Both idiocy and accidents happen. Look no further than Google's ill-fated social platform, Buzz, which, at launch, stupefyingly disclosed contact and location data, including to abusers about their past victims.
We've also seen everyone from government agencies to private companies improperly, even illegally, snoop and spy on everyone from exes to celebrities using the data that's been collected.
Google's gotten a lot smarter since Buzz, sure, and has protections In place to prevent abuse, fine. But as long as they're collecting and keeping that data, we're only ever one accident, idiocy, or one well-placed bad actor away from breach or violation.
Earlier this year we saw Google's own employees take them to task over a deal to sell AI to the military for drone use. AI, almost certainly, trained using our data.
Does it have to be this way? No. There are techniques that can be used to destroy enough data prior to storage to ensure a much greater degree of anonimity. Apple, for example, is deleting start and end points from navigation, then segmenting the trip, then only keeping random segments from the trip. That way, there's literally no data of where you began, where you ended up, or everywhere you went along the way. But, there's still enough data to analyze traffic flow in aggregate. It's just more work.
On Star Trek and Mirror Universes
It's often said that Google wants to build the Star Trek computer. A system so powerful and all-knowing that you can ask it anything, at any time, and get a useful answer. And that the best or easiest or most efficient or whatever way they could figure out to fund it was advertising and feed it was to make things that looked like gadgets — Android and Chromebooks — but were really giant harvesting machines.
Once upon a time, my then single-digit-year-old godson got a Google account and Chromebook for school and, when I saw him, all he could do was tell me how cool it was that Google offered to let him play a Pac Man style game but on a map of his own street so he could chomp all his neighbor's houses, and while he smiled and giggled, all I could think of was the candy-coated permission dialog box they'd given him to grant them perpetual access to location data… for a child. And that they now knew where he lived and could tie all of that back to him for the rest of his school and subsequent life.
Because, every time Google or someone says anonymized, and they're not literally destroying data prior to collection to ensure it, you know it's not really true. As the paper points out, there are simply too many signals for all of this data to not be pattern matched back to you, me, and yeah, our kids.
Maybe I'm beyond ridiculous for thinking this way. Maybe no one cares. Privacy is dead. And, as long as they're going to take your data, you should make sure you get the best services possible while they're doing it. You know, make sure you're good and drunk first.
In Star Trek, no one seems to care that the computer can tell people where they are at any time, even give their vital signs, even if they're embarrassingly elevated on the Holodeck. Seriously?
But that computer isn't run by a private company. It's, fictiously, run by a planetary and multi-planetary federation. And the people in Star Fleet are in Star Fleet, not private citizens.
And, even in Star Trek, we're only ever one mirror universe blink away from that same computer that knows where and how we are, being used to burn us down at the touch of a button.
Do you even Google?
I'm not saying you should delete Google, though you certainly can if you want to and I'll do a video with viable alternatives soon. But I'm saying, especially if you're concerned about Facebook, you shouldn't fool yourself into thinking Google is different in kind. They've simply enjoyed better PR so far.
I'm also not saying Google is biased. It's only ever and always biased towards Google. It doesn't care about our petty language or politics or religion or whether we prefer Coke to Pepsi or Marvel to DC. It wants all of us. All our data. The more and wider the better.
I'm just saying be aware. Understand what it is you're paying to use services you think might be free and open, you know, like a trap. And then make the best, most informed decision for you.