Google and Facebook: privacy and security


I have long been critical of Google, but two thing have recently begun to make me begin to think again.  First, they have developed an amazing App – Google Translate!  Whilst the translations are by no means perfect, the idea behind the App is brilliant.  At its best, you can speak the phrase that you want translated, and the App will then give you a translation in more than 60 different languages, all as text and some as a sound file.  Using such software, someone can speak a phrase in Indonesian and then the App will translate it so that someone else can hear the phrase in Portuguese or Russian or Czech.  This is really beginning to use the potential of mobile technologies to help people from many different backgrounds communicate with each other.

However, this is not the main purpose of this note.  Anyone who uses Google software cannot but be aware of the changes to Google’s privacy policy that are due to come into force on 1st March.  This is the important thing – Google, for a change, appears to be trying to be much more open than ever before in explaining the reasons why it is adopting new privacy policies.  As they say, “We’re getting rid of over 60 different privacy policies across Google and replacing them with one that’s a lot shorter and easier to read. Our new policy covers multiple products and features, reflecting our desire to create one beautifully simple and intuitive experience across Google”. In clarifying the reasons for this, Google claims that it will make it easier to work across Google, it will be tailored for users, it will be easier to share and collaborate, that its fundamental principle of protecting user privacy has not changed, and that it helps users understand how Google uses their data.

Google has five core privacy principles:

  1. “Use information to provide our users with valuable products and services.
  2. Develop products that reflect strong privacy standards and practices.
  3. Make the collection of personal information transparent.
  4. Give users meaningful choices to protect their privacy.
  5. Be a responsible steward of the information that we hold”.

However, are these principles really as sound as they at first sight appear?  Google’s profits have been built around the fundamental notion that it encourages consumers to give information to the company that is of considerable value to Google  in exchange for ‘free’ services, such as the world’s best search engine, e-mails and document sharing.

An alternative perspective is offered by those who see this as a deliberate move to combine information about individuals from across the platforms that it now owns, and use this to generate even greater profits.  As the BBC has commented, “Critics have hit out at Google’s decision to merge personal data from YouTube, Gmail, search, social network Google+ and dozens of other services”.  As the BBC report goes on to note, “Data is a hugely valuable commodity as firms seek ways of making money from users’ web habits with ever more targeted adverts”.

It is not only Google, though, that is combining aspects of its various services, and the information it gleans from them.  As the competition between Google and Facebook hots up, Facebook is also combining the different data it holds about people.  Again, as the BBC comments “Facebook is also moving to merge people’s data, with tweaks to how user information is displayed. Its new feature, Timeline, shares users’ past history on the site in a more readable way. While it does not expose any more information that was previously available on its traditional profile page it does makes it easier to view older posts. Currently the system is voluntary, but Facebook is making it compulsory”.

The forthcoming IPO (initial public offering) of Facebook provides an interesting opportunity to reflect on the balance of power between the top valued companies that have built their businesses on the technologies of the Internet, and an apparently endless desire by people to find out about each other and share information about themselves.  A recent report by Keith Woolcock in Time Business captures this well: “The upcoming IPO of Facebook, the flak surrounding Twitter’s decision to censor some tweets, and Google’s weaker-than-expected 4th-quarter earnings all point to one of the big events of our times: The crazy, chaotic, idealistic days of the Internet are ending. Once, the Prairies were open and shared by everyone. Then the farmers arrived and fenced them in. The same is happening to the Internet: Apple, Amazon and Facebook are putting up fences — and Google is increasingly being left outside. The old Internet on which Google has thrived is still there, of course, but like the wilderness it is shrinking. Often these days, we sign up for Facebook or Amazon’s private version of the Internet. At other times, we use a smartphone and download an App instead of using Google search. Investors are already placing their bets on who the winners of the new Internet will be: Over the past five years Amazon’s shares, despite their recent fall, have risen 370%. Apple’s are up 438%. Google’s, meanwhile, have merely risen by 17% in all that time.  It is still the early days of this long-term trend, but my hunch is that this gap in performance will widen over the coming year — and that Google’s long slow decline has already begun”.

Perhaps I should start feeling sorry for Google after all.  At least I began this blog by encouraging people to start using their great translation App!  Ultimately, though, we should all reflect a bit deeper on what it is we are giving away for free when we sign up for a service that is free for us to use.  We should all also be much more careful about just how much information about ourselves we make available publicly – just in case one day we regret the profit that others have made out of it!

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