The Google I/O annual developers’ conference was expected to be the venue for Google to make a proper pitch about how it cares for the digital privacy of anyone who uses their apps and services. And that they did, without fail. In what the company calls “Privacy that works for everyone”, Google has announced a series of measures that attempt to make your digital lives more private, and you potentially share less data with online parties.
For starters, Google is now making it easier to find the Privacy Controls, in the first place. That is a good start. While these have always been there as a part of the Google Account for years now, it has not always had a set template for accessing these features across a variety of Google apps and services. That is set to change now. In a move to standardize the matter, Google will now roll out the profile picture element on the top right corner of the layout of all its apps. Tap on your profile photo, tap on Manage Your Google Account and then select Privacy And Personalization. This is now rolling out for apps including Gmail, Drive, Contacts and Pay. This feature will also be rolled out for Search, Maps, YouTube, Chrome, the Assistant and News apps later this month. This will certainly make it easier for users to toggle security features on or off.
The other big move is the addition of the Incognito Mode for Google’s app ecosystem. You may probably remember the Incognito Mode which has been around in the Chrome web browser for years now, and is a good way to browse the internet without the history of your activities getting logged in the browser or the computing device you were accessing this from. This is now rolling out for more apps. YouTube already has it, and Google confirms Maps and Search will also get the Incognito Mode soon. Basically, when you use Maps in Incognito Mode, the places you search for or the navigation logs will not get saved to your Google account.
Finally, the good old Chrome web browser will get more powerful cookie controls, to prevent websites from tracking your browsing activities across other browser tabs and windows as well. Simply put, cookies are used by advertisers and publishers to track you online, and that data is a goldmine for them—they can feed you content they think you will read, and dish out relevant adverts that could entice you to buy something.
It is surely not surprising that Google has made this rather adamant pitch that it really cares about the privacy of anyone using Google’s apps and services. Facebook did so a few weeks ago too, when the much maligned social network and tech company said it was now embarking on a different direction with its messaging apps to focus on private conversations, while the Facebook platform itself will focus more on groups but with greater controls for privacy.
But why do Google and Facebook have to shout about this concern for user privacy, from the rooftops? Despite the differences in the way the two companies work, the revenue streams and the difference in products, Google and Facebook are undoubtedly the dominant online entities when it comes to advertising. Google has the massive search demographic too. Data is what both of these companies accumulate by the truckloads ever second the world is awake. Your phone, your tablet, your computer at work, your laptop at home, your car as you connect Android Auto and even apps that you use. Since it is a source of revenue, a source to improve products and services and drives certain features in apps (such as the traffic data that is collected), and hence data collection remains necessary. It is still about what data and how much, a control that users may now have the illusion of being able to control, but time will tell whether all this genuinely works or is simply a distraction tactic. There have now been multiple instances (and there continue to be) where the data that tech companies collected from you and I (quite a few times without telling us), has not been safeguarded properly. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is perhaps the one that brought this to everyone’s attention, but that wasn’t the first or the last. Subsequently, tech companies are now caught in a tussle with regulators globally, who want to put stricter rules and penalties in place, for any company that takes liberties with user data. Europe already has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in place, US is also working on data privacy regulations and India also has the draft regulations.