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A Threat To Online Privacy

In today’s world the use of technology is becoming more widespread by the minute: there are 6.64 billion people worldwide in possession of smartphones, approximately 1 million new internet users per day, and over 10.98 Billion mobile connections worldwide. Though technology undoubtedly increases the quality of life of an average citizen (of a country where regular access to the Internet is the norm) by making online resources accessible and connecting family and friends, it also poses a threat to online security and privacy. What makes this particular issue especially threatening is the number of people who are unaware of its existence. Only a fraction of people using an internet device are aware of the extent of the information the device can collect. Some of the methods of data collection are just plain outrageous and even have the potential to be harmful to the user, but Google and many other web browsers continue to collect this data solely because they would financially benefit from it. 

One should be concerned about Google Chrome in particular, because not only it is responsible for half of all internet traffic, it has among the most questionable policies. Unfortunately, users are generally unaware of them. Google says in its Privacy Policy that it collects data ranging from the “languages you speak” to “the people who matter the most to you online.” The true extent of this can be understood once we realise that in order to know who “the people who matter the most to you online” are, Google must collect the number of messages the users send, the recipients, and even the content. Google is collecting information on every single platform that we use, every word we write, and every click we make while we’re using it. 

Google separates the data it collects into two categories: content the user creates and provides to it and how the user interacts with the browser. The former implies that Google can (and does) read the content of any emails received, including photos and videos saved, and documents created. Not only does Google collect this information but also sends them to third parties, meaning that the content of the users’ emails and the time sent is not only available to developers but also separate firms altogether. 

Google claims that this is done to improve ad-targeting as by reading the content of the emails, it can assume the type of products the user may be interested in. Google can uncover sensitive details of their user’s life including passwords which were written in emails, confidential messages, and more just to send the users a personalized advertisement. The only party benefiting from this is Google and occasionally advertising firms. 

Google is consistently choosing to get money from millions of their clients by using data collection techniques which are much more extensive than they need to be. The Wall Street Journal found that “Google was letting ‘hundreds’ of app makers scan the inboxes of millions of users.” As terrifying as this issue already is, it is not only app developers who can read the content of the emails, but Google staff as well. As WSJ investigates, Google employees read “around 8,000 uncensored emails to help train the firm’s software.” Susan Molinari, Google’s former vice president of public policy, responded to this issue and concerns by saying that the privacy policy is “easily accessible to users to review” and the information is collected only after the users give Google permission to collect this data (Vox). "It doesn’t display ads within these services or use the data for advertising purposes", she wrote. 

If Google is transparent about the data it collects, why is it that so many users are unaware of it? The reason that many people do not read the privacy policy before accepting it is due to how verbose it is and generally people aren’t aware what many of the technical terms mean, so even after reading it people might still be unclear of what it says. At the moment Google’s privacy policy is over 4,000 words long compared to only 600 words in 1999. The change in data collection is clearly shown when the two versions are compared. In 1999, Google only collected “aggregate search activity”, personal information the user provided, and cookies, meaning that data collection was not focused on the individuals but rather the community as a whole. Examples of this may include websites visited the most frequently, preference of one product over the other, etc. Regardless of the vast amounts of information collected, Google’s users do not decrease, and though this is partially due to the lack of knowledge about the issue, it is also because many times people have no option but to use Google. Examples of this can include workplaces and schools that use Google Suite for email, which many institutions do. 

What repercussions has Google faced after this issue was brought to light? It faced several lawsuits about it’s privacy policy in the past, and even paid 22.5 million USD as a result of a lawsuit filed in 2012. The lawsuit was filed by the Federal Trade Commission because Google broke their agreement and collected data from users while they were using Safari. Another lawsuit, filed in 2020, claimed that Google doesn’t stop collecting the user’s data even when those settings are disabled; according to Search Engine Journal, the lawsuit even stated that “Google has made itself an unaccountable trove of information so detailed and expansive that George Orwell himself could not have imagined it.” When the public is aware of the issue, then we can take steps which can eventually lead to lawsuits and other serious threats which have an indisputable impact on the policies. It is important to know the information which is being stored about you and take precautions to not let any sensitive data be collected. The first step to changing the policies is to be aware of them, only then can we do something about it.

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