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Posted on May 24, 2019

Is Google Really Improving Privacy?

It’s not news that everything we do, write, say, share, and buy is relentlessly tracked and sold to the highest bidder by Big Tech. Recently, the ubiquitous Google, guilty of some of the most egregious assaults against our sense of personal boundaries while interacting with our devices, has come out with a big dog-and-pony show repping recent strides they’ve made with regards to our online privacy.

Are Google’s efforts commendable, or maybe perhaps worth a deeply cynical dive? Jonathan Mayer, computer scientist at Princeton, says the scheme will be easy for advertisers to evade, among other problems it would create. “This is not privacy leadership — this is privacy theater.”

Let’s look at their proposed privacy upgrades and see what floats.

Google’s enhanced privacy controls

Google’s push is allegedly part of an ongoing effort to make data collection a more transparent process over which we, as users, have more control. Every interaction you have with a Google product is available for manipulation: and that includes everyone’s favorite Maps, YouTube, Chrome browser, and more. So how do you make global tweaks to your Google privacy?

These privacy controls can be accessed from your Google account page. Click “Data and personalization” in the left sidebar. Most of the data control functions can be found in the “Activity Controls” section. Here, you can toggle data collection on or off for broad categories like location history or app and web activity. Alternatively, you can delete your history for individual interactions or products you don’t want saved and used. Google recently gave users the option to delete all their data after three months, eighteen months, or not at all.

While these changes seem both significant and right-minded, and potentially may be, experts aren’t in agreement. Google’s display forces us to confront the issue of how long one has to allow deep fingerprinting on their identity before powerful algorithms and AI don’t actually need any new data of yours. Consider: even if you delete all your data after every three months, it might only take three months of data for Google to have enough about you to send you howling into the dystopian night.

Limiting cookies’ access

Google is testing different ways to limit third-party cookies in the Chrome browser. One method will allow the user to easily distinguish between first- and third-party cookies, allowing them to block the latter.

Advertisers on the internet are concerned about cookie-control measures because Chrome controlling over 60% of the desktop and mobile browser markets. This would sharply curtail access to a tremendous amount of consumer data.

Increased privacy for internet of things

Google also promises to focus intensely on its smart home product line, Nest. Privacy and security around the internet of things (IoT) remains riddled with holes, and Google seems to acknowledge that.

To start, Google will be shutting down Works with Nest this summer. Works will be succeeded by Google Assistant. Google is purging Works with Nest partly because the smart home tech sphere has epic privacy abuse potential. Since these technologies are still relatively new, they haven’t seen mass adoption or testing, and as such, products are vulnerable to hacks and exploits. In addition, a lack of centralized platforms and/or regulations potentially leaves users not only vulnerable to hackers, but also to malicious companies.

Adding to the initiative, Google Vice President, Rishi Chandra, claims Google will only share your smart home data with a small number of vetted partners, and will only do so if users volunteer their consent. Google has already provided some privacy controls for audio data (accessible through the account page). If they extend this privilege to video data, users of smart home devices will enjoy notably higher levels of privacy and security.

So what do we make of all these proposed changes? To president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Marc Rotenberg, the initiatives are underwhelming. “Unless the Federal Trade Commission is prepared to bring enforcement actions against companies, these promises to protect privacy matter very little,” he said. And until our privacy is perfectly ensured through enforceable and comprehensive legislation, users will have to protect themselves with TrackOFF.