‘Don't be evil’ has been retired
‘Don't be evil’ was Google's founding principle and corporate mantra.
‘What seems today like a quaint relic of the company’s early days, when the crayon colors of the Google logo still conveyed the cheerful, idealistic spirit of the enterprise.’ - Rana Foroohar.
Digital privacy is for sale
Google makes billions of dollars every year by processing your private data and selling the ability to show you relevant ads.
The company's core business model revolves around tracking you and billions of others while you use their services.
Google tracks you even if you don't use their products.
Privacy matters. Google does not respect yours…
It began with Backrub
Google started life as a search engine research project at Stanford University in the 1990s.
It was titled ‘Backrub’. The project was renamed for understandable reasons.
Google's tracking can be visualised as a ghost watching everything you do online, while giving you a nonconsensual and creepy backrub.
The Google of today
The founders had a mission:
‘to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.’
A quarter of a century after creation, Google has become a massive corporation that has diverged significantly from its founding principles.
Years chasing rapid growth and profit at the inevitable expense of ethics has secured both founders' place in the world's top 20 richest people.
Google does not need to track you
It is possible to be profitable without sacrificing user privacy.
It is a myth that you need to track people to make money in Web search.
Intrenched & verbified
‘Google’ is now a verb in common use.
‘as it is difficult for brands to become verbs, the few that do create immense brand equity, and hence, a substantial barrier to entry’.
Google fulfils the vast majority of worldwide searches.
It is hard for competitors to break this stranglehold and therefore hard to minimise Google's continued hoovering of private data.
Inevitable scope creep
The company's pursuit of profit has led to plenty of steps over the ‘creepy line’.
‘There is what I call the creepy line. The Google policy on a lot of things is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.‘ - Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO.
This leads to predictable lapses,
- Google under antitrust investigation by 50 attorneys general. (Makena Kelly, The Verge).
- NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others. (Greenwald, MacAskill. The Guardian).
- The news section has plenty more.
What can you do?
You can minimise your contribution to Google's data grinder,
- Consider account deletion.
- Follow further steps to protect your privacy.
- Support politicians who propose to regulate data collection.
It's possible to do it gradually. Start by trying alternatives.
If you really can't leave Google, consider a fresh account for a slight privacy benefit.
Many of us aren't fully aware what we are signing up for when using Google services.
‘Google and Facebook are watching our every move online. It's time to make them stop.’ - Gabriel Weinberg, DuckDuckGo.
Few would consent to the invasion of privacy that is now part of the Google package.
Children cannot consent to personal data theft.
And yet Chromebooks dominate in schools…
Google will continue to collect personal data for profit, rejecting the notion of any accountability for doing so.
This includes doing whatever it takes to ensure a healthy pool of future users.
- Google assistant now runs on over 400 million devices.
- Google bought Nest for it's smart home expertise. Now part of the ‘Google Home’ division.
Sneaky dog and bone
Google's relentless tracking makes it seem like your phone is listening to you.
Talking to my mum and she asks what I'm having for tea. Then I turn my Google on, up it pops, rice and chili con carne. I really don't like it. - Good Listener, Don Broco
Tracking. The global data shit-storm.
Google makes predictions based on observed behavioural patterns. To do this it needs to know as much about your recent life as possible.
Input data is used for predictions about your future.
These insights are then used, correct or not, to allow advertisers to target you.
Web acquisition methods
Google has tempted web developers into installing trackers on approximately 85% of the top 50K sites.
- Google Analytics. Website visit stats.
- Google Fonts. Web font service.
- Google Adsense. Web advertising.
- reCAPTCHA. The ‘I'm not a robot’ test.
Each tracker requires the web developer to copy-and-paste a small Google code snippet into their website code.
It's super easy to sell your website viewer's privacy for advertising money.
Your web browser runs the code when you load the page, thereby connecting Google's tracking to your browsing.
Google never forgets
The most recent data is the most valuable, but everything is stored.
Google is never satisfied with yesterday's data. It is important to keep tracking you.
There are very few limits on the kind of data Google tracks.
Nothing personal, just business.
Data source expansion
Google buys companies that can expand the type of data it is possible to collect.
- Android ($50 million). The phone operating system. The centre of many people's digital existance. What a bargain.
- YouTube ($1.65 billion).
- Nest ($3.2 billion). Smoke alarms, thermostats, video cameras in your home.
- Fitbit ($2.1 billion). Heartrate tracking, steps etc.
Even payment providers can be involved.
- Google and Mastercard cut a secret ad deal to track retail sales.
- Consider your use of loyalty cards.
We trust Gmail with our lives
Email is a private form of communication. It requires a password to access.
Very few would happily share the keys to an email account with a stranger or even someone you knew. Why would you share it with Google?
Email is often the source of authenticity for everyday services.
- Bank details, communication.
- Payment providers e.g. PayPal receipts.
- Online shopping. Receipts, sale notifications.
- Membership e.g. cinema, gym.
Google tracks your real-world location
Google employs every possible means to accurately track your location over time.
- Phone signal
Your visits to sensitive locations are not exempt. Google tracks you even when you tell it not to.
Google maps is a very useful and impressive service. However, you are sharing your location with Google at every stage.
Need to visit the Hospital? Alchoholics Anonymous? It's easy to see how sensitive this data can be.
Consider how private your time spent is. Google has the potential to monitor:
- Waking hours. How much sleep.
- Time spent exercising.
- Hours behind the wheel of a car.
- Time on Google services e.g. YouTube.
Very few people would accept being tracked 24 hours a day.
Being watched changes behaviour
As soon as you feel like you are being watched, you cannot behave naturally. Being watched does not allow you to freely experiment as a human being.
‘Those who do not move, do not notice their chains’ - Rosa Luxemburg.
Talks can help break it down
- Privacy matters - Glen Greenwald.
- Here's how we take back the Internet - Edward Snowden.
- We're building a dystopia just to make people click on ads - Zeynep Tufekci.
Nothing to hide?
Consider how you would feel if forced to give your unlocked phone to someone you did not trust.
What you are feeling now is the appropriate level of distrust you should have for giving data to technology companies.
‘Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say’ - Edward Snowden
How to permanently delete a Google account
Google is intertwined with our digital lives. It can take a little effort to detangle.
- Download your data.
- Line up replacements for essential services like email.
- Notify contacts, essential services of your new email address.
There is no rush. Stopping contribution of recent data is a good start.
When you are ready, proceed to the account deletion page.
The account deletion process
The deletion process will remind you of all the reasons not to delete your account.
- How much data is deleted.
- Photos you will lose.
- How many gmail conversations.
It is worth considering your options, but don't let this page put you off. It is designed to make you nervous about deletion.
Remember to download your data, then you won't lose anything.
What happens to your data?
In theory, deleting your account removes all Google data related to you. In reality it's more complicated.
Allegations of complicity with National Security Agency surveillance and multiple data-privacy breaches suggest that your data may never truly be deleted.
Data shared with apps and advertisers is with them forever.
As a Google user you are leaving behind a valuable personal data footprint.
What to do next?
Take a deep breath
Google doesn't have an essential product from a user point of view.
They should probably be a little worried about that, but it's good news for you!
Here are some recommendations.
Google is a great search engine, but competitors have caught up. It is important to have a default search engine that respects your privacy.
DuckDuckGo comes recommended. The privacy focused search engine offers excellent search without the tracking.
Chrome is bad. It makes little sense to use a browser from a company that tracks users.
It is not in Google's best interest to enhance browser privacy at the expense of it's primary ad business.
This conflict of interest makes any claim to
‘build a more private web’ difficult to swallow.
This particular case was neatly debunked.
Google can track non-users via Google Analytics and other similar means. You can minimise this and protect your privacy.
Switch to a privacy focused browser like Brave or try a tracking blocker in your favourite.
You'll enjoy faster loading, smooth websites. The trackers really slow them down.
Here's how the browsers stack up privacy-wise.
Switch from Gmail to a reputable email provider. You don't have to immediately delete your Gmail account.
- ProtonMail is popular for good reason.
- Upcoming ‘hey’ email service from 37signals sounds promising.
Once settled, clean out your old Gmail account.
Try a secure messaging app. WhatsApp is not secure.
Signal is a great choice.
Avoid Google products
There are plenty of reputable alternatives,
- No More Google covers privacy-friendly alternatives.
- BBC asks: what can you use instead of Google and Facebook?
Enjoy your freedom
Google was founded in the 1990s. Their leadership has had well over a decade to learn from their privacy blunders. They have consistently failed to reign in their greed.
‘And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ — Sir John Dalberg-Acton.
App and/or web developer by trade?
If you produce content on the web, you can make a massive difference.
- Remove Google trackers/widgets e.g. Analytics, Adsense.
- Avoid Google for sign in.
- Reduce Google technology dependency, especially 3rd party scripts.
- Avoid AMP. Don't auto-link to AMP versions of websites. Your ethics are more valuable. You have the skills to achieve the same lightweight result.
Stop using Google Analytics on your website.
The ethical approach would make it harder for Google to track users around the web.
There are always Google alternatives, and plenty of reasons to switch e.g. Cloudflare provide a free, private analytics alternative.
If you are looking for alternative means of monetisation for your website, try Basic Attention Token.
With the rise of ad-blockers, you're unlikely to continue making money with Google ads.
- Google wants 30% from developers after years of lax enforcement (Tom Maxwell, Input).
- WebBundles Harmful to Content Blocking, Security Tools, and the Open Web (Brave).
- Developer says Google yanked its app after it cooperated in antitrust investigation (Tom Maxwell, Input).
- Google search results prioritize Google products over competitors (Adrianne Jeffries and Leon Yin, The Markup).
- How to Live Without Google: Alternatives That Protect Your Privacy (DuckDuckGo).
- Google got rich from your data. DuckDuckGo is fighting back (Matt Burgess, Wired).
- Google still tracks you in incognito mode, new lawsuit alleges (J Fergus, Input).
- Why you should stop using Google Analytics on your website (Marko Saric, Plausible).
- Google tracked his bike ride past a burglarized home. That made him a suspect. (Jon Schuppe, NBC News).
- Making new online accounts is the ultimate privacy power play (David Nield, Popular Science).
- Google tracks your movements, like it or not (Ryan Nakashima, AP News).
- ‘A fundamentally illegitimate choice’: Shoshana Zuboff on the age of surveillance capitalism (Sam Biddle, The Intercept).
- It’s not that we’ve failed to rein in Facebook and Google. We’ve not even tried. (Shoshana Zuboff, The Guardian).
- Google plans to launch censored search engine in China, leaded documents reveal. (Ryan Gallagher, The Intercept).
- Google plans not to renew its contract for Project Maven, a controversial Pentagon drone AI imaging program (Kate Conger, Gizmodo).
- Irish watchdog launches Google, Tinder GDPR data processing probe (Charlie Osborne, Zero Day).
- Google and YouTube Will Pay Record $170 Million for Alleged Violations of Children’s Privacy Law (FTC).
- What can you use instead of Google and Facebook? (Tom Jackson, BBC).
- Americans need a ‘digital bill of rights’. Here's why (Ramesh Srinivasan, The Guardian).
- Next steps to ensure transparency, choice and control in digital advertising (Chetna Bindra, Google Ads Blog).
- Google China prototype links searches to phone numbers (Ryan Gallagher, The Intercept).
- A top Google exec pushed the company to commit to human rights. Then Google pushed him out, he says. (Nitasha Tiku, Washington Post).
- Google’s ads just look like search results now (Jon Porter, The Verge).
- Privacy concerns regarding Google (Wikipedia).
- Google Has Quietly Dropped Ban on Personally Identifiable Web Tracking (Julia Angwin, ProPublica).
- Are you okay with your bosses enabling ‘techno-fascism’? (Eric Johnson, Recode).
- How to See All Your Google Data (Nicole Kobie, Teen Vogue).
- Google balances privacy, reach (Elinor Mills, CNET).