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Can someone explain why people don't trust Google?

Posted: , by Michael H.

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Can someone explain why people don't trust Google?
Yesterday, Android chief Sundar Pichai laid out his reasoning as to why people should trust Google with their data, and that spurred on an extremely entertaining discussion in the comment thread about Google and the privacy concerns around the company. The trouble is that throughout the debate, we never got a compelling argument as to why people don't trust Google. This is key, we had a few people talking about various privacy issues that Google has had (we'll touch on those in-depth in a minute), and we had people saying that they value privacy, but valuing privacy doesn't explain why Google is untrustworthy. 

Google's business and you 

Let's start right at the core of things: Google's primary business is advertising, and it make more and more money through advertising based on how successful those ads are. Ads are successful by targeting products to people who would most likely be interested in those products. The best way to do that is for Google to learn about you and serve you ads that are more likely to catch your attention because the ads are relevant to you.

For just a second, let's take a look at how advertising is traditionally done. It was a wide-spray system: you sign up for a customer loyalty card at the supermarket, or companies purchase your information from a public database, then you get endless amounts of junk mail in your mailbox. It's incredibly difficult to stop this flow of junk mail. Or, you pick up a newspaper, magazine, or watch a TV show, and based on the content provided (and the time it is provided in the case of TV), advertisers try to guess what you might like and serve up ads that you can't really avoid, but you can ignore if you want. And, for the most part, you probably will ignore them, because really who needs to see an ad for toilet paper? Is there anyone out there who is only buying toilet paper because it's being advertised? No. 

Now, back to Google. Google has taken the wide-spray technique of old advertising and has focused the aim to serve you ads that you are more likely to care about, if you let Google learn about you. And, if you allow Google to learn about you, you don't just get better ads that are more relevant, you get a host of other services that are subsidized by ads. Let's be clear about it, Google doesn't offer free services, Google offers ad-subsidized services. We get Gmail, Search, Maps, YouTube, Drive, Calendar, Blogger, Translate, and everything else for no out of pocket cost. All Google asks is that you trade some information for the access. 

This is not a novel approach. Facebook and Twitter do the same thing, and most news websites also do the same thing. News websites may not always gather a lot of information, for example, we here at PhoneArena assume that our audience likes technology (since we cover mobile tech), so our site features ads from relevant companies like Best Buy and Intel (in addition to some wide-spray ads like Kia). Ultimately, the more information you give to systems like Facebook and Google, the more they will be able to profit from you.

Of course, we want to be careful about putting Facebook and Google in the same category, because while each profits in the same way, the process and user control options for each are vastly different. Facebook has had a history of changing policies without really explaining things, and of obfuscating controls. Google, on the other hand, may not always succeed, but does at least attempt to be more transparent about what it is doing, and how you can control your data. 

Google's transparency and control

Right off the bat, how do we know that Google uses personal data to target ads better? Because Google says so. Google's Privacy Policy is written extremely clearly, in plain language, so anyone can understand it. It lays out exactly how Google gathers information, and what it does with that information. This is a big departure from advertising companies of old, and it sometimes feels like the anger people have towards the faceless advertising companies is being focused on Google, because we know exactly what it is doing

As far as control, Google probably could be better, but at the same time the company is still better than a lot of others. Most of Google's data collection is opt-in by default, but you can turn off quite a bit of it. And, at the end of the day, you can always stay logged out of your Google account. Google will still be able to gather some general information about you, like your operating system and location, which is information that any website can gather unless you spoof the system. 

And, you can delete most of the information that Google has gathered on you, and that data will be removed from Google's servers after a certain period of time. On this front, Google could be more transparent, because it is unclear exactly how long some data is kept, or how it works with images linked to a document. But ultimately, your data will be removed if you want it to be. 

There is no unified way to delete all of your data from Google. Some people mistakenly think that this is what Google Takeout is for, but that's not true. Google Takeout is only there so that you can download your data from Google. If you want to delete your data, you would have to go to your Google Dashboard and go through each service individually. It is time consuming, but it is possible. 

Google does use your data in order to better target ads, but it should be made clear that Google does not share any personally identifiable information, and even protects what it calls "sensitive personal information". This means that while Google may know who you are and where you live, and can attach that information to your interest graph, advertisers don't know anything more than that there is a person in a certain general area who likes a certain thing. Google doesn't share your name, and "sensitive personal information" covers data like "confidential medical facts, racial or ethnic origins, political or religious beliefs or sexuality." For information like that, Google requires an opt-in before it will share anything like that.

And, we should mention the ultimate form of control that you have: don't use Google. If you don't use Google, Google doesn't get information about you. It's quite simple, but it's also something that sometimes gets lost in the privacy debate. Often, those complaining about Google's privacy policies will make it sound like they actually want to use Google services, but feel that those services should be completely free, with no ads and no data collection. Frankly, this sounds like a silly attitude of entitlement. Google doesn't owe anyone free services, that's not how companies work. 

The value you get in return and the enigma of privacy

Of course, as we mentioned, a big part of the value in this trade is that it allows Google to offer most of its services for free, but the more information Google has on you, the better the services get. Because Google knows what you search for, it can better recommend a wide range of things like music, YouTube videos, news stories, restaurants, and of course general search results get better as well. Voice recognition and spell checking gets better because Google knows how you speak or how you type. And, we won't go into it again, because we've talked about it at length before, but Google Now wouldn't be one of the best new pieces of software available without Google knowing about you. 

That leads to this idea of privacy. We understand that there are some limited reasons why someone would want to protect certain information. But, in general, what exactly is the value of privacy? We can understand if you would be put in some sort of danger by sharing certain information, but that's not really what we're talking about here. Google offers what we think is a fair amount of value for your data, and aside from a few slip-ups (which we're about to examine), Google has had a pretty strong record of protecting user data. 

Google's privacy problems examined

Obviously, Google isn't perfect. Google has had privacy issues in the past, and has even faced various fines around the world because of the troubles. But, we feel like the various issues have been a bit miscast for the most part

For example, many people point to the Street View case as a smoking gun that Google doesn't care about your privacy. The trouble we have with that characterization is that it is mostly based on hyperbolic media reports that don't quite understand what happened. Media reports have often used phrasing like "Google stole data", which is not accurate. The only data that Google Street View cars gathered were from open WiFi access points, meaning they did not have any password protection at all, and anyone could walk by any of those same places and gather far more data than Google cars did while passing by. If you can't be bothered to secure your data in even the most basic way, what right do you have to complain if some of that data is gathered by someone outside?

The second case that tends to get a lot of attention is when Google bypassed Safari's cookie settings in order to get +1 buttons to work on websites. This is a bit closer to being an actual problem, although once again, despite link-bait headlines, Google didn't "track" anyone using this method. The story was that Safari, by default, doesn't allow any 3rd party cookies at all, so Google used a loophole to get around that limitation, and get +1 buttons working in the browser. Part of the story that doesn't get much press is that the loophole was one that Google itself patched and submitted the code back to WebKit, but Apple never adopted the code into Safari, effectively leaving the backdoor open. We'll admit that Google acted shady in this case, even though the company didn't actually do anything harmful. 

The last case that gets press is the one that is by far the biggest problem that Google has had, because although the problems were born out of stupidity, the damages were serious. Of course, we're talking about the Buzz fiasco. The story there was that when Google first launched Buzz, it tried to set up users with social connections that made sense. Unfortunately, this was done automatically, so contact details were shared without consent. The most famous story from this fiasco was from a woman whose details were automatically shared with an ex who was under a restraining order. This was legitimately a problem, although it should be mentioned that Google raced to fix the problems, and pushed changes the day after launching, and ultimately had the problems sorted out in less than a week. 

Google's incentive is your protection

That quick response in the Buzz fiasco leads us to our main issue with those who cling to the response of wanting to protect their privacy, and try to stir up fears that Google is going to misuse your data for its own gain. First of all, as we mentioned before, Google does not share personally identifiable information at all, and doesn't share "sensitive personal information" unless you specifically allow it. 

Of course, those concerned with privacy question if Google can be trusted to follow this promise. The theory seems to be that Google can make more money by breaking that oath and selling off any data that it can. Here's the trouble with that theory: Google's business model means that it is incentivized to protect your data, not exploit it.

Sure, it is possible that Google could break its promises and misuse your data for its own gain. But, is it likely? We certainly don't think so. Think about it this way: Google's business is built on advertising, and those ads are successful because of the targeting. Google could misuse your data, but if it does, it loses your trust. If Google loses your trust, it loses your data. If it loses your data, it can't target ads as well, so ad revenue drops. When ad revenue drops, the company can't support all of the services that people love, and the whole house of cards collapses. 

Google's best path to revenue is to protect your data, and use that data to provide better services and better ads. Given that, and the value that Google offers with its services, can someone please explain: what incentive does Google have to misuse your data? And, why exactly do some people not trust Google? And, please, be specific. If you want to protect your privacy, please explain why you want to, and what you feel like you gain from being more private rather than sharing. 

a special thanks goes out to ardent1, Hemlocke, and the others who debated this with me yesterday and inspired this post. 

  • Options

posted on 31 May 2013, 23:20 33

1. Suraj3337 (Posts: 45; Member since: 20 Apr 2012)

I cant explain, because I trust them!

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 00:10 6

12. james004 (Posts: 486; Member since: 15 May 2013)

because they are offer advertisers to use their site people think their data is being send to those advertiser. google clearly says it does not do that.
if there is someone you should worry about stealing your data it is ..... your credit card companies. they see where you waste money and they sell that info for millions.

its simple dont keep your original data such as address and real name online. no fear. and dont use cloud for document and photo storage.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 02:47 17

24. SuperNexus (Posts: 127; Member since: 18 Jan 2013)

I also trust Google. For me Google is most trusted company. I never faced any privacy problem.

I think people who don't trust Google must have some trust issue or whatever.

and Some are Microsoft fan boys who trust Bing.(You know Microsoft Advertising strategy-----always compare their product with competitors)

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 05:39 4

44. the_best (Posts: 139; Member since: 14 Oct 2012)

This is just a fluff piece, collecting data from people should be illigale, in fact it is illigale in sweden if you keep the data for more than a month.

Its my life i dont want them to tell me what i need to buy!
To be able to keep track of us, the consumers, thats the cornerstone in their intire business model.

We all know how ads works, its not that we se something and IF we like it we buy it.
The reality is that when we see something over and over again we start to think that we need it.

Theres nothing more irritating than when im on youtube and whatever i search for theres allways the same content showing up. even if i was super intrested in swedish comedians one slow october night last year, it doesnt mean i would like to watch the them all day long, every day!

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 09:37 5

69. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2705; Member since: 26 May 2011)

Okay, but could you explain WHY collecting data should be illegal?

I can understand why it should be illegal to buy personal data like junk mailers do. I can even understand why it should be illegal for ISPs to collect all of your web traffic data without your consent. I don't understand what should be illegal about how Google does it.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 10:23 5

80. the_best (Posts: 139; Member since: 14 Oct 2012)

First of all, im saying that where im from, IT IS ILLEGAL
to collect and keep data on private perons.
And there are many resons why, but the main one is that it enables companies to manipulate us to buy their products.

There are other such as, our private life becomes public in a company that doesent care about the common peoples rights, it only cares about one thing, and that is PROFIT.

Example of what can happens, if the some highright wing extremist group doesnt like when young women abort their babies, they can buy the rights from google of the top 10 search results for whenever a woman in the ages 10 - 25 searches for "abortion". these pages can say whatever they want, such as "women cant get pregnant after being raped" or "abortion is murder, and you will burn in hell if you do get one".

Does this sound like good thing?

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 11:01 1

83. Suo.Eno (Posts: 499; Member since: 17 Feb 2013)

No that's not a good thing but you're being a bit way out of your tree there. I don't think that even in a capitalistic nature would Google allow that sort of thing to happen AND it would take a very very top shelf high bunch of right wing extremists to be able to achieve that.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 11:09 7

86. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2705; Member since: 26 May 2011)

That doesn't sound like a good thing, but it's also not going to happen. Google expressly says it will not sell your info. The nightmare scenario you describe could happen without any help from Google. Laws should focus on the act, not the technology.

I guess my question is: why do we revere this "private life" so much? Aside from examples that you say where the information can put you in physical danger, most information that people try to protect as "private" is nothing more than something they find embarrassing, but if they were public about it, they would likely find many people who share the same view.

Just look at all the value we've gotten from social networking in general: support groups, niche interest groups, crowd-sourced everything. There is a ton of value in being public. I just don't really see the value in being private aside from things that could put you in harm's way.

But, to your first point. I understand that it is illegal where you are, but that doesn't answer the question WHY. For example, marijuana is illegal in the US, not because it actually harms people, but because way back in the day, the cotton lobby saw hemp as a threat to its business.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 12:57 1

97. 14545 (Posts: 1598; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)

Michael, let's say "the_bests" situation was actually logical, why should that be illegal? As you said, no one forces one to use google's services. So if you don't like the links being "served up", then use bing, or Yahoo, or AOL. There are dozens of other search engines for the picking, so why should one persons opinion on a specific subject matter be illegal? That's a slippery slope IMO. Laws should only exist to protect ones rights from another. There is nothing remotely bad in that comment. It would be no different that some "rich left winger" paying to target libertarians, like myself, with government is good, or higher taxes are good ads. Additionally, the comment above isn't even logical because people would immediately stop using google if they had to put up with that treatment.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 13:46 4

104. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2705; Member since: 26 May 2011)

The act of attacking someone is already illegal. The act of stalking someone is also illegal. The act of planning or attempting to attack someone is already illegal. Why do we need to even bring technology into the equation?

Steak knives aren't illegal, just the bad things you do with them. The same principle applies.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 14:24

113. 14545 (Posts: 1598; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)

That was my point. I don't believe more laws are necessary in a situation like this. I might have misunderstood your post.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 21:43

136. TA700 (Posts: 78; Member since: 29 Mar 2013)

It's the same reason why we don't like to be stalked.

posted on 03 Jun 2013, 17:03

166. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2705; Member since: 26 May 2011)

You have no choice when someone is stalking you. You have a choice when it comes to Google and your data.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 13:32

101. riggsy (Posts: 25; Member since: 16 Apr 2012)

Screw William Randolph Hearst.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 18:59

129. johnbftl (Posts: 281; Member since: 09 Jun 2012)

That is actually not true Michael. A recent study by USC has shown a strong link between smoking marijuana and non-seminomal testicular cancer. As a person who has in his younger years smoked a lot of marijuana, and at the age of 27 was diagnosed with non-seminomal testicular cancer. The US Army also conducted a 30 year study showing a higher rate of lung cancer in people that smoked marijuana than those who smoked cigarettes. UC Davis closely linked it to schizophrenia as well. So yes, it did harm people.

posted on 02 Jun 2013, 10:48 1

146. 14545 (Posts: 1598; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)

While you maybe correct about Marijuana's effects on the human body, that doesn't mean there needs to be legislation to prevent one from using xyz drug. The government was never intended to protect us from ourselves(IOW, a nanny state), it was created to protect us from one another. Example, why are there suicide laws? If I, you, or anyone else wants to off themselves, then who are we to punish them if we are able to stop them from doing so? Shouldn't it be a win if we stop them from harming themselves? Next, seatbelt laws, what are their purpose? Helmet laws? If I don't want to wear a helmet, then chances are, the world would have a net + if I die from not doing so. It's called survival of the fittest. Personally, I HATE seatbelts. (Three point harnesses anyway) They are restrictive and uncomfortable and in my experience not helpful. However, 4/5 point harnesses are more than comfortable, and if I had one in my car I would have no problem wearing a seat belt. But I refuse to wear these stupid 3 point harnesses for these reasons. I have also been involved in my fair share of "not at fault" accidents and never once had the seatbelt do anything to help save me that airbags couldn't do to a lesser extent. My point is, these items harm no one but ME. Therefore, it is not the governments place to legislate that I should be forced to wear something for my own safety. Give me liberty or give me death. A smarter man than I, once said, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety".

posted on 03 Jun 2013, 17:05

167. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2705; Member since: 26 May 2011)

I'm not arguing whether or not marijuana harms people. I'm simply saying that harm had nothing to do with the original impetus for making it illegal. It was originally made illegal because the cotton lobby saw hemp as a threat. The argument of harm came well later.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 11:57 3

89. techspace (Posts: 1036; Member since: 03 Sep 2012)

it should be legal to collect data only if the user wants them to do so.....there are people who may not like to allow someone to collect their data....
some users are not happy with it because they fear that the data could be misused....google may use it for improving the services but you never know what happens tomorrow...you can't predict the future and you can't trust anyone...
you can't trust a private company that exists only to make money
having said that, there are people who don't mind sharing data with google...
different people have different minds, different people think in different ways, so you can't have a single policy for everyone...google should collect data only after taking permission from the user...i don't mind sharing my data with google but you can't expect the same thing from everyone

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 12:49 2

94. 14545 (Posts: 1598; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)

Wow, it's funny how all of you cry and moan about private companies. When these private companies HAVE NO INCENTIVE, as MH said, to sell your actual data. They just use your data to make their advertising more effective.Yet, as it seems, you are the first to trust the government, and the government has been proven to be extremely nefarious with our data. I'll take google 99 days out of 100 when compared with the US gov. One needs to look no further than the situation within the IRS for examples.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 23:30 1

142. techspace (Posts: 1036; Member since: 03 Sep 2012)

I have already said that I don't mind sharing data with google...I don't say that I trust the government and I don't trust private companies....but I said that because private companies are private companies...the government is something that can't be avoided, but that doesn't mean that it should be mandatory to share your info with private companies...how can you guarantee that the data can't be misused? and even if google doesn't misuse the data someone else may do it...even the powerful American army became a victim of Chinese hackers at times...so I think the best idea is to ask the user before doing anything with their data

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 12:42 1

93. 14545 (Posts: 1598; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)

@ Michael
I think it should be illegal for one reason, and ONE reason only. The government can't be trusted. I trust google with my data, but I don't trust the government with it. In light of recent events, and court decisions it would be best to make it illegal for companies to collect data that way the government can't disregard the 4th amendment(both in our right and Google's) and use that data against us for political gain or whatever BS law they want to create at the time.

All that being said, it's not a google problem, it's a POS government problem.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 12:49

95. 14545 (Posts: 1598; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)

Here is the link I was talking about.


posted on 01 Jun 2013, 13:48 3

105. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2705; Member since: 26 May 2011)

So put limits on the government's power. Focus the issue where it should be focused.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 14:22 1

112. 14545 (Posts: 1598; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)

While I do agree, the government will never voluntarily give up the power to snoop without our permission. Our congressmen/women, and senators are too stupid/evil to do the publics work. So, IMO, the only way to stop them is to prevent the companies from having access to our data that the government could illegally seize. I'm not one to use the government to prevent a private company from doing something. However, in this case it is out of self interest for protecting the people from an overbearing government. Just my .02.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 14:27

114. ardent1 (Posts: 2000; Member since: 16 Apr 2011)


For the record, I did not have a "debate" with you; instead, I pointed out where you were factually incorrect about Google's "habitual" problems with privacy concerns, i.e. the record fine by FTC.

Separately, you need to reread the Fourth Amendment that gives US citizens et al protection against illegal searches. Some people smarter than us will have to address the 4th amendment within the context of the internet.

My original point to you is that Google is not without sin.


posted on 01 Jun 2013, 14:43 3

115. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2705; Member since: 26 May 2011)

I never argued that Google was without sin. My argument is that the recorded fine by the FTC isn't the smoking gun you claim it is.

I have no idea how you expect the 4th amendment to apply to Google. You choose to use Google services, and Google is completely open about what it does. Nothing illegal there.

If your issue is with what the government could potentially do with the data that Google has, then your issue is with the government, not Google.

posted on 02 Jun 2013, 11:10

148. 14545 (Posts: 1598; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)

I think you need to reread the constitution, including the Bill of Rights. Couple that with a rereading of the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation. Not one part of the constitution applies to a non government entity. You CHOOSE TO USE GOOGLE. No one is forcing you to use their services, so if you don't like their tracking policies, then don't use them. The constitution and it's proceeding documents were pertaining to an entity we have very limited control over. Just the same way as your "First Amendment" rights don't apply to phone arena, they have the right as a company that provides a service to you, to filter or delete your comments as they deem fit for *their* website. If you don't like it, then don't use their services.

posted on 02 Jun 2013, 23:05

162. tswsabeer (Posts: 16; Member since: 16 Mar 2013)

Come back to Earth. Can you name one search company that doesn't collect data from you?

Even the big dude Microsoft who runs campaigns against google's actions collects your data!

posted on 03 Jun 2013, 09:59

165. the_best (Posts: 139; Member since: 14 Oct 2012)

wow this has realy escalated =P
First of all, i can understand you not trusting the US gov.
Theres a reason why FBI and CIA are more famous than say FSB(current version of KGB).
However you need to start trusting them cus the gov would make your country a hell of lota better if these mega companies like google, apple, microsoft, exxon and so on didnt exist. They are the bad guys, they keep pressing the gov to do their dirty work.
And by the way my erlier point about nightmare scenarios when google sell your information, it is already happening, dont you think that lobbying companies do this regulary?

The problem is that i dont have i choice if i want to live in a modern society, i have to use google. maybe not their mail or their search engine, but they have 100 maybe 1000 other companies who all collect data about us.

Im not saying microsoft is better, im just sayng I f**kING HATE GOOGLE for pushing them selves on me.

posted on 01 Jun 2013, 12:23 1

91. metalpoet (unregistered)

I trust google, id rather have my gmail for free and see some ads instead of having to pay to have my email, gmail is the noly email system i fully trust. my old aol, hotmail, msn, and yahoo have all been hacked at one point all while my gmail hasnt hacked once so there ya go. I put my full support in google, their not an evil company compared to many others out there like dell with there incredibly annoying ad they put up on phone arena :)

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