Trusting any internet service or company with your data is always, at best, a calculated risk. On the one hand, the temptation of certain services, or the need for access to some information, or the lure of personal convenience, can loom large in the mind of the consumer. On the other hand, your data can get highly personal and if you trust the wrong person with it, you can suffer all sorts of negative consequences. You may get hacked. You may have your data used for the purposes of political propaganda, sometimes in service of causes you find abhorrent. You may even be politically targeted for what you share with companies that are supposed to be neutral, in theory, but in practice are anything but.
The risk varies across companies, of course, and some are worse than others. Unfortunately, one of the worst and least secure companies currently operating — Google — has just been exposed for vacuuming up your data whether you know about it, or want them to, at all.
Multiple outlets have reported on Google’s surreptitious data collection, but perhaps none exposed the sheer scope and shamelessness of how that collection takes place so well as ABC News. In a breathtaking video report, ABC demonstrates that even when two reporters travel around New York with previously unopened and unused Android phones in their pockets, the phones continually track their locations, and activities. Not only that, but the phones can also somehow tell whether the reporters in question are riding bikes, in cars, underground, above ground, on a subway, or on foot. The only thing preventing all that data going straight to Google’s servers was the reporters’ self-imposed decision to disconnect their phones from any internet, thus leaving the data stored on the phone and unable to be transmitted.
In other words, Google programs their phones to stalk their owners and transmit as much data as the phone can pick up about what they’re doing to the company, whether the owners know anything about it or not. In fact, even if you work out how to tell your phone not to collect this data, it listens politely, and then goes right on doing it.
If a person acted like this, they’d be called a stalker. Or, potentially, an identity thief, given the mountains of financial and personal data that smartphones, Google’s included, accrue on their owners. Indeed, it’s hard not to think about the limits of what Google could predict about one’s life given enough of this kind of data collection. Moreover, it’s not at all clear that they are giving consumers anything for this data, or whether this data is something they’re stealing from people who have the right to demand a fair price for it. Nor is it clear what such a price should be. These are all problems — so much so that they formed the basis of questioning that members of Congress directed against Google CEO Sundar Pichai during a recent congressional hearing — questioning to which Pichai had no satisfactory answer.
However, let’s say you ignore all those extremely troubling points, and presume there’s nothing untoward about these completely undisclosed invasions of privacy. What then? Well, even in that case, letting Google have this kind of data is a uniquely stupid idea. Google’s miscarriage of a social network, Google Plus, was so insecure that the data of over 50 million people has now been stolen from under the company’s nose through Google Plus. That’s nearly twice as many people as reside in the state of Texas. Indeed, this has forced Google to shutter the service months before its planned expiration date, just to make no more such data breaches occur. To call Google insecure is an understatement. When it comes to consumer data, they may as well be a malware site with a patina of legitimacy.
And now, they know when you drive, when you bike, when you walk, when you use the subway, and yes, probably even when and where you sleep. They are like Santa Claus in the old ditty “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” They see you when you’re sleeping; they know when you’re awake. Except Santa’s Nice and Naughty list never ended up for sale on the dark web. Google can’t guarantee that, and even if they did, their treatment of consumers’ requests for privacy shows just how much those promises are worth. This Christmas, Congress needs to deliver them a big, fat lump of coal.