Facebook has been garnering quite a few positive headlines of late with its privacy-pivot despite their claim to be converts to the importance of online privacy testing credibility to its limit.
So, it is perhaps little wonder that rival firms like Google and Microsoft are scrambling to follow in their footsteps.
Pichai’s privacy push
Google is the latest tech corporation to hop on the privacy bus with Chief Executive Sundar Pichai recently telling a conference of developers about just how important online privacy was.
The irony of the CEO of a company which hoovers up private data on an industrial scale and makes billions of dollars of profit every month through exploiting it with advertisers and other interest parties has not been lost on observers.
But it does seem to have been lost on Pichai himself. Either that or he is completely burying his head in the sand and hoping that the hypocrisy storm won’t last long.
“We think privacy is for everyone – not just for the few,” Pichai said while somehow managing to keep a straight face. “We want to do more to stay ahead of constantly evolving user expectations.”
So, what exactly is Google planning to do to protect user privacy and prevent them inadvertently handing over all this hugely profitable private data?
Google’s privacy plans
Firstly, they are going to allow users to browse services such as YouTube and Google Maps in their incognito mode.
Incognito mode has been available on Chrome for about a decade. It stops Google storing activity records on your device, which is a good thing. But it does not stop Google sending data about your activity back to their servers. This, of course, is the data they can make use of.
They also plan to allow users to delete their web and app activity history automatically after either three months or eighteen months. This is again a noble gesture but of course, it is the most recent data that is the most profitable for Google so again it is a move unlike to affect how they exploit user data to indeed to hit their profit margins.
Google has also pledged to make it easier for people to find and delete data they have shared with the company. But given that the current system is like navigating a labyrinth and is clearly designed to put people off, hopes aren’t high for significant improvements.
The big tech privacy façade
The fact is that Google is more than happy to be seen to be putting privacy control into the hands of users, no matter how difficult they make it in practice.
They are gambling that doing this will be sufficient to keep the regulators at bay. Meanwhile, they know that most users are too lazy or technically inept to be able to actually use these controls, so in practice little will change.
Microsoft is currently playing the same game. Users of their Office suite will have recently seen a pop-up telling them, “Your data, controlled by you” followed by a review of their privacy settings to allow them to determine how much data Microsoft can collect.
The only way to get through this is by clicking ‘Next’ which many users will do just to get on with their day. But in doing so, they are actually giving Microsoft the right to collect tons more data.
Those who do read the questions will be encouraged, none-to-subtly, to agree to the same thing. ‘If you want your Office software to perform to its optimum capacity, you have to let Microsoft access anything they want’ is a short paraphrase of what this process does.
How to stay private online
While Pichai preached about privacy to a compliant audience, arguably the most relevant input to the session was when a plane flew over the open-air auditorium he was speaking in training a banner which read, “Google Control Is Not Privacy #savelocalnews.”
While those campaigners have their own specific agenda, the point they powerfully made can be applied to almost everything Google does.
Google cannot have it both ways. If it is serious about user privacy, it needs to provide them with simple and powerful tools that genuinely give them the power to delete all their data from Google’s servers and stop them collecting any more.
Trying to baffle them with complex settings is insincere and makes it clear that Google wants to be seen to be offering online privacy rather than actually to do it. Microsoft, Facebook, and most other big tech companies are guilty of taking the same approach.
The blunt truth is that if you want to keep your online data private from the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, the only real way to do it is to stop using their services altogether.
Given how ubiquitous companies like these are, that is extremely difficult to do in practice for most people.
The alternative is to take the time to figure out their complex privacy settings and make sure that you have everything set up to minimize their data collection.
At the same time, be sure to use a VPN such as ExpressVPN to stop these companies inadvertently collecting data when you aren’t even on their sites. (Yes, they do!)
And when you are using the internet, for any purpose, try to ensure that you always have one eye on the privacy implications of what you are doing. Just in case!