Google still doesn’t understand what privacy means

android 12 beta 2 privacy dashboard privacy settings menu scaled


Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority

There was plenty to get out of Google I/O 2022, especially if you’re excited about the prospect of more Google hardware to buy. But several keynote speakers also talked about an equally important but less exciting aspect of Google’s core business: privacy. Or more specifically, the lack of it. Unfortunately, none of them seemed to really understand what good privacy actually means.

As you are no doubt aware, Google’s primary activity remains advertising sales. Whether you’re using the search function, watching YouTube, or browsing the Play Store, Google keeps track of what you’re up to and builds a personalized ad profile that it can use to target ads to you with maximum efficiency and thus revenue. Obviously, no one really likes this practice, especially since it’s virtually impossible to really monitor and control the data collected about us, but we begrudgingly accept it as the price of “free” services.

See also: How to know if someone is tracking your Android phone

At I/O 2022, Google unveiled its latest solution to satisfy the more privacy-conscious: the dystopian My Ad Center. In the not-too-distant future, Google users will have a classy new UI and features they can navigate to customize their ad experience. Only “Big G” could think anyone wants to waste precious minutes of their life managing which of the “brands you love” can track which bits of their data.

Now that it’s allowed, My Ad Center should eventually give users more granular control over the topics and types of data they end up sharing with brands and ad companies. A welcome improvement, no doubt about it. Especially when it comes to users voluntarily providing data rather than the cookie-based profiling we’ve all been exposed to in the past. However, the controls users need should be easily accessible and not buried in layers of obscuration.

The big test for My Ad Center will no doubt be whether it has the same annoying pitfalls as other frustrating “privacy-conscious” initiatives like GDPR-mandated pop-ups and app permissions in general. That’s all busy work, moving the paperwork and annoying users with countless things to press without making much of a difference to the data collected or the ads they see. Ultimately, it shouldn’t be up to the user to figure out how to log in and out, data collectors should prioritize privacy and assume that users don’t want everything collected by default. Unfortunately, Google has yet to follow Apple’s move to allow apps to ask users for permission and disable tracking by default.

Web tracking from My Ads Center and Topics is a small step in the right direction.

To Google’s credit, it’s showing tentative signs of moving away from its old general approach to a slightly more voluntary data collection model. The company wants to drop third-party cookie-based web tracking and replace it with its Topics API. Topics doesn’t share browsing data on the internet and doesn’t even need to know a user’s identity to show relevant ads. It also does not collect massive data, instead, websites are assigned topics and relevant ads are created based on a small selection of the topics a user wants to be associated with. It’s less intrusive, but websites can and probably will opt out.

Ultimately, the problem users have with the aggressive data collection practices of Google, Facebook, and others isn’t that they can’t fine-tune their preferences — it’s the level of data collected in the first place. My Ads Center, combined with Topics, suggests that Google is starting to realize this, but time will tell if it’s just a matter of hanging out. After all, Google is still trying to strike the right balance without disrupting its core business model.

Google is caught between the privacy concerns of its users and the data collection needs of its core advertising business.

In addition to My Ad Center, Google I/O spokespersons have spent a lot of time talking about the importance of privacy and security across all of its services. Rightly so. Google has been responsible for numerous user data leaks in recent years. Notable events include a 2018 Google+ bug that revealed the data of 52.5 million users and nearly 5 million Gmail passwords leaked online in 2014. Not to mention the private browser tracking lawsuit, the $170 million fine in 2019 for violating children’s data privacy involving YouTube Kids, being caught tracking locations without permission in 2018, or the whole range of data collection from android apps recently pulled from the store. Google has a terrible track record when it comes to protecting and respecting the privacy of its users.

See also: These are the ten best privacy browsers out there

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

The cynic in me still sees initiatives like My Ads Center, options to remove identifiable information from Search, and local “protected computing” processing as a response to Google’s past indiscretions rather than a new leaf of altruism.

They are, of course, very welcome improvements that give users that little bit more privacy and control over the data collected about them. Big G is moving in the right direction, albeit in cautious, small steps. However, Google doesn’t seem to have learned the most important lesson of the past decade – the only way to keep data private is to not collect it.

True privacy only exists if data is never collected.

Despite signs of progress, my takeaway from I/O is that Google is still not getting privacy. Not really. The company likes to talk a big game about app permissions, encrypted data, and user switching, but the bottom line is that it’s still a data-gathering machine. After all, that’s Google’s business model, and there will always be an internal struggle to balance data collection with monetization.

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