I recently wrote about Facebook’s intentional manipulation of our brain’s reward system, via features on their sites and apps that are designed to trigger the release of dopamine.
As the various scandals unfold, the news is awash with articles about the type and extent of data Facebook, Google and other similar services have on us. The most stunning part, is that people are surprised.
A Guardian article lists, in horror, the following headings:
The top comment on the article summarises my thoughts perfectly…
When we use Google as a search engine, or any of the products it owns either overtly (Gmail, Google Fit, Google Chrome, Google Drive) or less so (Youtube), it is not only obvious that they will track and use our data, but we gave them explicit permission to do so.
It is not possible to download Google apps without seeing the following prompts, requesting various permissions. They ask explicitly for permission to do most of the things the Guardian article headings cover. (Visuals may vary slightly depending on phone operating system):
I looked at four Google apps (Fit, Sheets, Home, Photos) to see what permissions they require for installation and usage:
Within those bullet points alone, Google gains permission to see who we are, where we are (directly via location, and through extrapolating our location based on which Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth devices we connect to / go near). It gains permission to see our contacts, and to see incoming and outgoing calls. It gains permission to see and use all images, video and audio on our phone, and on our phone’s external storage (SD card etc). It gains permission to use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to communicate with and collect information about other devices.
All of this information is willingly given by us, and Google are explicit in exactly what information they will take.
This may be less well known, but Google makes a shit load of money from advertising.
According to Alphabet’s 2017 fiscal year press release (Alphabet is the parent company of Google), they made $27227000000 from advertising in the three months ending December 2017.
That’s twenty seven thousand, two hundred and twenty seven MILLION dollars.
This represents the majority of Google’s revenue, so it is in their best interest to remain competitive and effective at advertising.
This is achieved through the collection and use of data. The more data Google has about their users, the more granular advertising they can offer. The more granular advertising, the more effective and the easier it is to target potential customers.
In my previous article I wrote that I don’t think Facebook exploiting us is necessarily a bad thing, and I believe this is the case here too. Google has a very transparent business model, and have never tried particularly hard to hide the fact that they generate revenue from advertising.
They ask explicitly for permission to use our data in the terms and conditions of their services, to which we agreed if we use any of them (when we installed Chrome, when we set up a Gmail account, when we connected our Google account to an Android device, when we signed into any website or service with our Google account, etc, etc, etc).
South Park warned us, in their over the top and satirical way, about the perils of blindly accepting terms and conditions. This uproar and surprise about Google and Facebook and others collecting and using our data is exactly the kind of thing they were warning against.
I believe we need to communicate with people in a much more effective way the implications of using websites and services on the internet. We are not effective consumers as long as we don’t understand the contracts we’re entering into with service providers.
If we are uncomfortable with the data that is being collected and how it is used, we, as the service users, have the power to campaign for change. Only by educating ourselves and others can we arrive at this position, however.