If you’re a typical Google user, you may use Gmail as your primary email, have an Android phone, use Google Chrome while signed into your Google account, have a FitBit tracking you at all times, and have a Google smart speaker listening to all your conversations.
You may be thinking, why should I care about Google tracking all of this information? I like getting search results and advertisements that are personalized. Isn’t giving my data in exchange for extremely convenient, easy to use services a fair trade? Today I will be tackling these important questions and summarizing the top ten reasons why you should care about Google having your data.
Ultimately, you will have to decide your yourself if the upsides to using Google services outweigh the downsides. Everyone is going to have a unique threat model and comfort level with mass data collection. The important thing is that you are fully aware of the drawbacks and understand how this data collection may affect you and society at large, both now and in the future. Only then are you able to make an informed decision on whether or not to use these services.
In this article, I am going to assume that you are aware of all the ways in which Google tracks us and the shear depth of information that they know about each one of us. Check out this article by U.S. News if you’d like to learn about the numerous ways that Google monitors us.
1. Targeted ads could accidentally reveal things about you
The quintessential example of how targeted ads could be problematic is the case of a teenage girl who had an unplanned pregnancy, and the mass retailer Target inadvertently let her father in on the secret. She started getting mailers with coupons for maternity clothes, nursery furniture, and baby apparel, and pretty soon her father connected the dots.
It’s important to understand that one of the primary means by which Google selects ads for you is by associating what your close contacts are searching for and purchasing. Google absolutely knows who your family members are, who your friends are, and who your employer and coworkers are. If you do anything on the internet that you wouldn’t want those people to know about, you should think twice about using Google services.
But if I had to guess, you’re probably not a teenage girl having unprotected sex and getting mailers from Target, so in what other scenarios might this affect you? Well, these scenarios can happen in one of two ways: either your contact sees an ad that was targeted toward you, or they are served an ad based on data collected about you.
The former, where someone sees an ad that was targeted to you, was clearly the case for this teenager’s mailers. But, this can happen in a number of other common circumstances, like when someone accidentally sees your screen over your shoulder, or when you share a video (in person) and have to awkwardly wait for the ad to play. These ads have the potential to reveal your political persuasion, your sexual orientation, or maybe just an embarrassing personal hobby of yours.
The latter, where someone is served an ad based on your data, is especially relevant for anything that you purchase. Unfortunately it’s much harder to prevent, but luckily it is less likely that your contact will associate the ad to you personally. That’s not to dismiss the problem though, since the time for newly collected data to influence advertisements is incredibly short, often 24 hours or less. This makes it easy to recall, for example, the conversation you had at work with a coworker yesterday that is now leading to targeted advertisements to your boss and all your coworkers.
2. You may not be able to trust all of Google’s employees with your data
It’s a fact of life that the companies that we share our data with have real people working for them with, at least some, access to that data. Companies can, and should, limit access to this data by employees to improve security, but many don’t. Google is better than most on this issue, but there’s often no viable way to verify that they are doing what they say they are, like you could do with open source software.
A rule of thumb in digital security is that people are often the weakest link in your security. They are vulnerable to phishing attempts, blackmail, and bribes, or sometimes choose to abuse systems for their own selfish gains. Having a stalker is bad enough, but imagine the absolute nightmare that could unfold by having a stalker that has access to your data because they found a corrupt employee selling access on the dark web, or happen to work for Google themselves.
3. Google may intentionally or unintentionally share your data
Google will insist that it does not sell your information, however they leave out a lot of the story with this simple statement. The Electronic Frontier Foundation broke down all the ways in which Google monetizes and shares your data in this 2020 article. The takeaway is that, while they may be able to get away with claiming that they don’t sell personal data from a legal perspective, the truth is a bit murkier.
For the most part, they sell access for advertisers to target people with specified characteristics and interests, and those interests are determined based on the individual profiles Google is able to build on everyone. But if that doesn’t concern you, you might be concerned to learn about some of the other ways advertisers can target users and de-anonymize them.
Google lets its advertisers upload a list of anonymous information about their customers, like a list of email addresses or device IDs, and target those users directly. This makes it easy to send a percentage of those users to a landing page where you can re-identify them by collecting their IP address, cookies, location, etc. A 2018 study published in IEEE goes into detail on this topic, focusing on the privacy implications of Facebook’s similar Custom Audiences feature.
This is not to mention the massive amount of data that has potentially been unintentionally exposed due to security vulnerabilities and breaches. While Google does have excellent security (not privacy) standards, they are not immune to attacks. Nothing is 100% secure. Most recently, in March 2018 Google Plus potentially exposed the personal information of nearly half a million users, revealing their name, email address, occupation, gender, and age.
Finally, it is difficult to know the extent to which Google shares its data, including its detailed personal profiles, with the government. The standard here is that the company signs a non-disclosure agreement with the government, so the details and limits of government involvement might not be revealed for many years, or perhaps ever. A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Communication, estimated that 1 in 5 of the top million websites were susceptible to known NSA tracking methods revealed by Edward Snowden, specifically using two Google tracking cookies called PREF and DoubleClick IDs.
4. Your contacts may not be okay with you sharing their data with Google
Although we may not acknowledge it very much, we must realize that our own digital privacy habits affect those around us. An obvious example is sharing photos of others online. In this case, the respectful thing to do it ask for permission from these people before posting the photos.
A less obvious example, however, is sharing contact information with the various apps and services on our phones. If you have an Android and use the stock contacts app, you share all of your contacts names, phone numbers, email addresses, physical addresses, and birthdays with Google.
This quickly becomes an ethical question of the consent of those you share data about. Your contacts shared this information with you, but they probably didn’t expect that you would share that information with any number of third parties and data mining operations.
We must treat the contact information we share with others as public information, because most people don’t protect this data. This is why I recommend a VoIP number strategy to use several phone numbers on one device.
5. Normalizing mass data collection makes it harder for the vulnerable
Google has been one of the biggest players to normalize widespread data collection amongst massive populations. It’s also estimated in the 2015 study published in the International Journal of Communication that Google tracks users on nearly 80% of the top 1 million websites. No other domains even come close to the level of tracking that Google achieves, and it seems to only be growing year after year.
This kind of mass data collection makes it a lot harder for people who have legitimate reasons for needing privacy. I’m talking about whistleblowers, journalists, activists, citizens living under an oppressive government, and victims of stalkers, hackers, and online harassment. These kinds of people are easily picked out amongst a crowd if they are the only ones using privacy-respecting services.
Many organizations want people to believe that privacy is only for criminals, but this is simply misinformation. Many vulnerable people rely on keeping their privacy from companies like Google to ensure their own physical safety. If privacy were the norm, the lives of these people would be astronomically easier and they would have even more effective protection from the increased threats that they face simply because there is power in numbers.
6. Google’s monopoly has too much power
In 2019, the European Commission fined Google 1.49 billion euros (~$1.75 billion) for violating EU antitrust rules in regard to its market dominance of online advertising. In the same year, Google settled a lawsuit brought by the Federal Trade Commission for $170 million for illegally collecting the personal information of children on YouTube. We may hear about these cases in the news and think that these are huge fines, but are they big enough to really matter to Google?
In 2020 alone, Google made over 180 billion dollars. If these costs are just a drop in the bucket of the revenue that Google generates, are our governments’ regulatory powers even effective at all? Or do these fines just become treated as a cost of doing business for players as big as Google? Are we, as a society, okay with having corporations so large and with so much market share that even the government cannot effectively reign them in or set limits on their behavior?
That’s not to mention the massive amounts of money they can afford to spend on lobbying the government. In 2019, Google spent $11.8 million on lobbying the US government. However, this number has been decreasing (unlike the other big tech players), and is 44% lower than in 2018.
7. Google does not respect your consent to be tracked
Now, this point does not apply to all Google services. Clearly, you do consent to being tracked when you use Gmail, Google Drive, Google search, etc. The problem lies in those places where Google tracking happens, but it’s not so obvious that your data is being shared. In these cases, Google is making money off of your data without you even really being aware that you’ve just become their product.
Furthermore, Google Analytics does not by default respect the “Do Not Track” option that is available in most modern browsers. To be clear, and many people do not know this, this option does nothing by itself but is simply an indicator to websites that you don’t want to be tracked. Respecting this wish is entirely voluntary at this time. Nevertheless, Google makes it very difficult for website owners to actually stop tracking if they encounter a user with “Do Not Track” turned on, making them have to edit technical code to accomplish it.
Another example is inside of apps, especially Android apps. In this kind of environment, it’s very obscured to the user what exactly the app is doing in the background, what domains it’s connecting to, and to what extent it’s tracking you. The researchers at Yale Privacy Lab published a study in 2017 that showed that, of a sample of more than 300 Android apps, over 75% contained known trackers. Is it legal for sites and apps to do this? Yes, absolutely. Is it ethical? I’m not so sure.
8. Google has the power to warp our reality and subdue democracy
Behavioral psychologist Robert Epstein testified before the United States Senate in 2019 about the extent to which Google poses a threat to democracy and fair elections. He estimates that biased search results in favor of a particular candidate, by both manipulating the first page of search results as well as autocomplete suggestions, can influence undecided voters in such a way that a shift of 20 percent or higher for that candidate is common in controlled experiments.
Furthermore, Epstein says the that vast majority of people don’t notice that the search results are biased. In a study with more than 2,000 undecided voters in India, 99.5% of the participants were unaware of the bias in the results of the custom search engine “Kadoodle” used in the controlled study.
This kind of manipulation is only detectable by actually monitoring and archiving search engine results. Otherwise, the search results may change within a few days around time-sensitive topics—like elections—and there would be no paper trail that the deception had ever taken place.
In 2020, Epstein caught Google red-handed. By monitoring the searches of a politically diverse group of 733 people in swing states Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, he found that, between October 26th and October 29th, only liberals in the test group received “Go Vote” reminders on Google’s home page. It was only after he went to the press with his results that Google stopped this blatant practice and starting showing vote reminders to everyone.
Whether or not Google has actually tried to influence recent elections—while important—is irrelevant to my argument. Criticism of Robert Epstein’s work usually points to small sample sizes used to extrapolate estimates. Clearly, further academic, peer-reviewed research is needed to definitively say whether or not Google is manipulating results. My argument is simply that Google has the power to influence our beliefs in great numbers if it chose to do so. To me, this in itself is an unacceptable state of affairs.
“The problem with Google is… that it has the power to determine what content billions of people worldwide will or [will] not see. No single entity—especially a private company that is not accountable to the public—should have such power.”Robert Epstein
In a study by Rand Fishkin of SparkToro, he showed that over 90% of web searches happen on Google platforms. This kind of centralized control of the flow of information gives Google the power to act as a filter between us and our information and the power to silently punish publishers it does not like. This is exactly why we value freedom of the press and journalistic standards of neutrality the in the United States—it is essential to the fairness of democracy.
9. Mass surveillance causes people to self-censor
It is a well-established psychological phenomenon that people who believe they are being surveilled will change their behavior, whether or not the surveillance is actually taking place. The effect has been coined the term “spiral of silence,” where people become unwilling to voice opinions that they believe differ from the majority when confronted with hostile opinion climates.
The effect is especially problematic when it happens among people such as journalists, film producers, and academics. In these cases, the impact of self-censorship on democracy, free thought, and innovation is exceptionally palpable.
In a 2020 national survey by the Cato Institute, they found that 62% of Americans say that they self-censor their political beliefs because of the current political climate. Furthermore, they found that 32% of Americans are worried that their political beliefs could harm their employment, a powerful motivator for self-censorship.
In a 2016 study published in Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly, a sample of 255 Americans were found to dramatically self-censor hostile opinions when primed with a reminder that the NSA would be monitoring their online activities. Given the fact that Google was named as an information source for the NSA’s PRISM program that was revealed by Edward Snowden, the implications for self-censorship on Google platforms are troubling.
Now, to be clear, Google denies that it directly shares it’s vast reserve of data with the NSA, although they do respond to requests for data about specified people. However, the extent to which Google currently shares data about these people has not been disclosed. It’s undoubtedly the case that Google would be prevented from revealing a mass data-sharing agreement if it were in place. Consequently, this possibility in itself is enough to have the aforementioned effect on self-censorship and free thought.
The problem of surveillance certainly extends beyond the scope of just Google. However, if it weren’t for the shear monopoly and centralized control that Google has on search, the effects would not be nearly as problematic and it would not be so easy for governments to implement their surveillance agendas.
10. Google may change how it uses your data in the future
Finally, my last reason why you should care about Google tracking is that you don’t know what Google might do with this data in the future. You may think that this is an invalid, “slippery slope” argument and that what I’m about to suggest is just speculation, but hear me out, because we do see legitimate trends in the ways that Google’s data is used and shared over time.
The first major trend is that Google is slowly acquiring more and more health data. In 2019, Google announced that it was purchasing FitBit, a leading wearable watch brand that monitors heart rate, sleep quality, and other personal health metrics. In the same year, Google began an agreement, coined “Project Nightingale,” to host patient data with Ascension, a health care system comprised of 2,600 hospitals and other medical facilities. The Wall Street Journal reported that doctors and patients had not been notified of the change and that 150 Google employees had direct access to patient data. The program is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for HIPAA violations.
The primary reason why this trend is so concerning is evident by another trend in the medical space. Namely, insurance companies are purchasing as much data as they can get their hands on in order to justify raising your rates. Unfortunately, it is quickly becoming a reality (if not already happening) that your insurance rates will be adjusted based on, for example, your purchase of plus-size clothing, the amount of time your television is on, and how many fruits and vegetables you buy. It only takes one bad Google data breach for that to extend to your search and browsing history as well.
Furthermore, this trend is not limited to just medical insurance. Every type of insurance company seems to want to gobble up your data these days. Imagine if your car insurance had your Google Maps data. They could determine exactly how fast you are driving, any time you suddenly hit the brakes, and any “risky” locations where you may drive. By identifying and fingerprinting you in your browser (Google does this constantly), advertised prices could be adjusted before the page loads, leaving no trace that the adjustment ever occurred.
Another trend we are seeing is an increase in active censorship of certain topics. In the last five years, Google has increasingly emphasized two self-coined terms in the way they rank search results, these are Y-M-Y-L and E-A-T. YMYL stands for “Your Money, Your Life,” and refers to the range of topics where a user could have a severe negative outcome by being served the wrong information. Content that falls under this range of topics must have EAT, or “Expertness, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness,” a measure of the authority of the website, in order to rank.
While this may be a good idea for search terms such as “symptoms of a heart attack,” the range of topics that are considered “YMYL” is constantly growing larger. Furthermore, there are no checks and balances to control how Google uses this metric. Because its algorithm is considered a trade secret, not even the best marketing experts really know how Google’s page ranking works in detail. Google gets the final say of what content it considers to be misinformation and which sources it decides have authority. What’s acceptable today may not be in the future, and if you don’t agree with what Google decides you have very little recourse.
And if all that was not enough of a concern, you may be troubled to learn that when these changes do occur, they largely slide under the radar. In 2016, ProPublica reported that Google discreetly changed its policies to allow association of personally identifiable information from its other services with its Double Click advertisement cookies.
So, when Google starts sharing data with insurance companies, you may simply accept the updated terms of service by default and never understand what modifications were made. Or, you may not realize anything has changed when a secretive search algorithm update has occurred that takes censorship to unprecedented levels. The best way to stop these scenarios from becoming a reality is to stop giving companies like Google our data in the first place.
Hope for the Future
Since this article was especially dark, I want to end on a note of optimism. It is possible to live without giving your data to Google, and there is a growing community of people ridding all traces of the company from their lives. “De-Googling” is becoming a phenomenon in and of itself, and you can learn how to de-Google, too.
In addition, several interesting proposals have been presented in order to improve our ability to hold Google accountable for search manipulation and end its monopoly on search. Researchers like Robert Epstein continue to increase their efforts to document concrete evidence of search manipulation that, if found, will damage Google’s reputation for neutrality. The U.S. government could also mandate that Google’s search indexes be put into the public domain, which would greatly improve other search engines’ ability to compete with Google.
If I could leave you with one change that you can make to start making a difference today, it would be to try using an alternative search engine such as Duck Duck Go. Try first making your searches on Duck Duck Go, and if you aren’t satisfied with the results then revert back to Google. This simple change, if implemented by enough people, would take much of Google’s power straight from under them. It is possible to live without being under Google’s thumb.