Both tech giants recently announced and emphasized at their respective developer conferences a renewed effort to improve user privacy on their platforms.
These epiphanies, surely having nothing to do with recent news coverage marring them both in scandals of misusing, or flat-out simply not protecting, user security and collected user data, have reportedly enlightened Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Google and Facebook, respectively, that the future/present, depending on who you ask, is “private.”
Convenient timing of these revelations aside, both platforms have begun rolling out new features and updates that reportedly aid in the achievement of their new-found goals. For Facebook, that means a dramatic redesign of its platform that places greater emphasis on groups and private messaging, with a timeline-less roll-out of end-to-end encryption reportedly set to come in the future. For Google, that means new safeguards and options for users, including incognito modes for apps like YouTube and Google Maps, as well as the ability to purge location history after three months.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of it all. Big company executives, after being questioned by Congress and grilled in the media about user privacy, seemingly fold and commit to greater privacy.
Don’t be fooled. At the end of the day, Facebook and Google are online giants, pent up on ad revenue sales, and user data is the oil that keeps the whole machine running. The last thing either company would do would be to jeopardize their business model just because of some bad press.
So what are they doing? Simple sleight of hand.
Let’s start with Facebook. A fresh coat of paint and some reassuring words from a CEO whose name has become synonymous with greed and negligence is, unfortunately, probably enough to convince the average user that Facebook really is turning over a new leaf.
Though, while few outside of the company are defending Facebook’s overreach, the blame does not lie solely on Zuckerberg here. A lack of understanding, or perhaps just blind ignorance or indifference, to Facebook’s data collection, and advertising-supported business models in general, among the general public has caused us to get to this point.
In a 2018 Pew Research Center survey following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a massive data collection effort that set off the current conversations surrounding Facebook’s user data collection and privacy, nearly three-fourths of Facebook users did not know the social media platform collected their interests to target advertisements.
On Google’s end, the company is addressing the controversy surrounding its location tracking habits half-heartedly. Private search in Google Maps, something that likely took only a few hours to craft up, and the ability to delete tracking history (after either a long three months or an even longer 18 months), is Google’s idea of a suitable response to news that Google’s previous options for users to disable their location history didn’t really do much of anything.
Location tracking is hardly the only issue Google has, but since it is the one that has been exposed, the company has chosen to address that while largely eschewing its likely half-dozen other data overreach practices with reassuring words from its CEO.
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Pichai avoided talks of what data Google collects while simply assuring readers that their data is safe on the company’s servers.
While largely focusing on how aggregated, anonymous data allows Google to make products like real-time navigation in Google Maps (and, oh yeah, a “small subset of data” helps serve you ads — and pays our salaries), Pichai says the company offers “real, meaningful choices” for users regarding their personal data collection.
Let me be clear: Nothing about the process is clear nor meaningful.
Google Maps new location history deletion tool is a perfect example. Users have two, seemingly random choices as to when their data is scrubbed, after three months or 18 months. Why not let users choose on their own?
Because your location history is largely useless to Google after three months anyway. If you haven’t returned to a particular area in three months, it doesn’t make much sense to continue advertising restaurants in that area to you anymore. You doing Google a favor by helping it reclaim some server space.
And sure, you can turn delete the data after three months, but it’s still going to be collected in the first place. There’s no option to simply turn that off (or at least one that works, anyway).
Not to mention the fact that this all requires the user to put in the extra effort to enable these settings, rather than them being on by default. And Pichai, conveniently, did not include a link to where Google users can manage these data collection settings.
I could rant on about the breadth of Google and Facebook’s data collection for hours, but that’s because I’m hyper-aware of it. While I have recently kicked Facebook out of my life, Google continues to remain an integral part of it.
Apathy towards the company’s monetization of my life is not necessarily an issue, and I’m hardly the only one. Despite declining trust in Facebook, according to 2018 polls at the height of Cambridge Analytica, and “Delete Facebook” campaigns dominating news outlets and, ironically, social media platforms, Facebook has continued to increase its user base, reporting 1.56 billion active users in its latest earnings call last month, a increase of 8 percent over the year prior.
I consent to Google and Facebook collecting my data because I have full knowledge (or at least enough knowledge) of what they collect, how they collect it and what they do with it, and I am comfortable with trading it away in exchange for free services that I feel better my life. Plus, like everyone, I clicked “Yes” on that wall-of-text End User Agreement when I signed up.
I have no qualms with people who knowingly give up their data; it’s entirely your choice whether to place confidence in Google, as I do, or Facebook, as I don’t. What I take issue with is the ignorance that the general public has toward these platforms, and the internet in general, the idea that, if money isn’t exchanging hands between the customer and the company, that they must really be getting something for nothing.
And I abhor these CEOs, at the moment when people are finally starting to understand that Facebook and Google come at a cost, seizing the opportunity to reintroduce “privacy” in an attempt to score brownie points and rebuild credibility, while ultimately doing next to nothing behind the scenes to change their ways. Facebook might start encrypting its passwords and Google might try to keep its servers under tighter security, but both will continue to take every last bit of information they can from you and use it to turn a profit.
You’ve been warned.