Tech group pledges greater privacy as it unveils products that will know more about you
Google’s most ambitious new products and services, on display at its annual conference for developers this week, rely on getting to know customers in ever greater detail. A new version of its digital assistant, for example, tries to construct a “graph” of a user’s interests and preferences, while a “smart screen” for the home is equipped with cameras so that it can learn to recognise users when they come into sight. But the world’s largest internet company also wants to reassure the billions of people who rely on its services that they can trust it. “We think privacy is for everyone,” said Sundar Pichai, Google chief executive, at the conference, as he outlined two main ways in which the company would change its approach. Users can now choose how long data are stored Google said it is working to give users more control over their personal information, and will now allow people to select how long they want personal data about their web and app activity to be retained by Google before it is deleted. The company has also extended “incognito mode” — which for a decade has allowed internet browsing without Google being able to record a user’s online activity — to other services, like searching and navigating using Google Maps. This points to what Google executives concede has become a lightning rod for privacy worries: the mass collection of data about users’ locations. Along with information about what they search for, this is the most valuable data Google has to target advertising, according to one. But it is also some of the personal information most ripe for abuse. In a concession to those worries, the company is extending new tools to let users limit how much location data are captured and how long it is kept. Critics are dismissive of such controls, claiming few people use them or even know they exist. Also, promising “granular” controls that give ever more precise ways of fine tuning privacy settings rings hollow after the failures of recent years, said Marc Rotenberg, head of privacy group Epic. “The irony is, that’s exactly what Facebook said a decade ago about their privacy settings,” he said. More data to stay on devices Google’s chief said the company now has a language processing algorithm that could operate with only half a gigabyte of memory, meaning it could be run on a handset, allowing user data to stay on the device The second approach to enhancing privacy protections is technological. Today’s main AI technology, machine learning, relies on training algorithms with large amounts of data and then using them to make inferences based on a user’s particular circumstances. Recent advances have made it possible to run some of these algorithms on mobile handsets and other devices — meaning that private user data need never be sent to Google’s own data centres to be processed. Mr Pichai said Google now had a language processing algorithm that could operate with only half a gigabyte of memory, compared with the 100 gigabytes that a predecessor algorithm needed. That meant it could be run on a handset, he said — making it operate far faster, but also allowing user data to stay on the device. Many of the new AI technologies are still at an early stage of development, and Google executives are wary about promising how many situations they will be used in. One such AI technology on display this week, called federated learning, is designed to train an algorithm by analysing what users do on their own devices, without shipping any of the personal behavioural data back to the company’s own data centres. Promises like these have not been enough to silence critics, who argue that they cannot substitute for direct regulation of AI. “This is one area we need the oversight of government,” said Mr Rotenberg. “The day has passed when internet companies can decide what kind of policies they want to follow. That is particularly the case when it comes to automated decisions.” Critics unimpressed by pledges Google’s latest attempt to show it is serious about user privacy comes at an important time. With politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington starting to show support for national privacy legislation, setting clearer limits around its own data-handling practices could be one way to discourage government over-reach. Its competitors, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, have all also recently promised to prioritise privacy. But if Google was hoping to win over longstanding critics of its mass data-collection practices, its executives would have been disappointed. “This is a drop in the digital bucket,” Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said of the new privacy-protection ideas the company unveiled this week. “It would take a wholesale reinvention, along with Facebook, of how they make money” to make a real difference, he said. Mr Rotenberg added that few people were likely to be persuaded by attempts at self-regulation by the big internet companies, and that only government action could make a difference. “The focus of any meaningful commitments by US companies lies with the Federal Trade Commission,” he said. “In the absence of enforcement by the government, [the commitments from Google] have very little value.” Impact on advertising Meanwhile, Google had one more concession over privacy to make to its critics, although it is one that is likely to hurt others in the online advertising world far more than the search giant itself. Users of its Chrome browser — used by around two-thirds of personal computer owners to browse the web — have already been able to block “cookies”, the pieces of code planted by websites and others to track their online behaviour. These blanket bans, however, have also cut off the cookies placed by companies to do things like record passwords, making life cumbersome for users. On Tuesday, Google said it would let users block just the invasive type of cookies. The move is likely to be devastating for many of the companies that have made a living by planting cookies to collect data about web browsing habits and selling them on to advertisers, said Mark Bullard, director of digital development at Lee Enterprises, which owns a collection of local newspapers across the US. By contrast, he added, publishers who seek to charge a premium for advertising around their content should benefit in the long run, as advertisers are forced to rely on them more to target users. But many publishers are still likely to suffer in the short term, he added, because they have also profited from methods of data collection targeted by the new browser plug-in. This was only part of an apparent attempt by Google to show it is intent on cleaning up some of the most criticised parts of the online advertising world. It also revealed a new tool designed to lift the lid on the opaque “adtech” world — the complex ecosystem of data gatherers and other tech companies that profit from collecting and processing personal data to enhance advertising. The technology takes the form of a browser plug-in that displays the names of all the companies who have had a hand in getting an advert to a user, along with disclosure about the particular data about a user that caused the ad to be displayed. The sheer complexity of the adtech world may make it hard to bring much transparency. But just being able to see how many companies have had a hand in delivering an advert, and had sight of their personal data, is likely to repel many internet users, said Mr Bullard.