Google: Friend or Foe?

When we were little, we asked mum everything from why the sky is blue to where our favourite sock was. These days, kids (and adults) just ask Google. And with so much voice-activated AI in our homes, we can probably get an answer from Siri, Alexa, or Cortana. It may be cool to hear that disembodied voice tell you exactly where your toothbrush is, but is it worth the risk of the eventual robot apocalypse?

Search engines and related technology – including the internet of things –play a big role in our lives. We often ignore this role, not actively thinking about the influence it can have. After all, we already have the vague notion that Google knows more about us than our significant other, or even our mother. Still, in recent times, we’re paying more attention to how much of our data is ‘out there’ on the web.

To de-activate or not to de-activate

Some respond with a call to kill social media accounts and eliminate cyber footprints. But … one, it’s hard to completely wipe out your online presence. Reputation management firms can scour the internet (for a price), but they can’t wipe it clean. And two, many of us don’t want to give up our online existence. It’s too important to us. So when we receive those privacy emails, we click on ‘read and agreed’ just like we did before.

Web companies are responding differently to Europe’s new General Data Protection Law (GDPR). Some – like Slack and Facebook – have offered new tools for reviewing your data and deleting it if you want to. Others have shut down, temporarily or permanently. Either way, review your privacy settings. And as for all those emails from services you no longer use, you might want to unsubscribe and revoke access … just to be safe.

Much ado about search engines

As for Google itself, it’s became enmeshed throughout our lives. Many of us use Google Drive for data storage, Gmail for personal and corporate email, Google Calendars to plan or schedules … and we’d literally be lost without Google Maps. Of course the downside of this is Google knows all our secrets, dirty or otherwise.

Glance at your Google stats. You’ll see they have your active phone number, a list of places you visit regularly, and even consistently updated routes of your commute. You could argue that collecting all this information helps the products work better for you. It’s also a little creepy that someone can sit at a computer and get exact details of your daily travel path.

Search for business needs

On the other hand, Google is the most frequent way that new customers discover your business. As a customer, you use it to verify before you buy, benevolently surveilling everyone else. Plus, while the constantly changing search algorithms drive SEO experts to abstraction, it’s a benefit for the average user.

Algorithm updates force SEO teams to replace tips, tricks, fluff, and churn with genuine, helpful, high quality content, which makes the web better for everyone. It seems the pros outweigh the cons after all.

Why are so many companies updating their privacy policies?

You’re probably receiving a lot of ‘privacy update’ emails at the moment. The bulk of them are from services you don’t even remember signing up for. Before you get upset and mark them all as spam, think of it as the email version of Marie Kondo. It’s time to de-clutter your virtual space and review your virtual footprint.

Everything you put online is a breadcrumb trail. Ordinarily, these details are used to send you target ads based on your interests.Other times, they can be built into a composite that can lead to identity theft, cost you a job, or compromise your relationship. Think about it this way. Someone with less-than-kosher intent sends you a friend request on Facebook or follows you on another platform. You accept without thinking twice.

A new kind of fake friend

This person now has access to your status updates and friends list. If your friends’ privacy settings allow it, this person can access their details too. Most of what we post on social media is trivial. You may whine about being stuck in traffic, publish a #TBT fromyour first day of school, or share a flash sale at your favourite store.

All your friends are doing the same thing, so a keen observer can get enough details to impersonate you online. They can deduce where you grew up, your childhood pet, mum’s maiden name (these are common answers to security questions) … and whether or not you’re home right now.They could access your email, hack your preferred platform, or create fake social media accounts to fool your friends, family, and bank account.

The trouble is … none of this is illegal. You offered this information freely. And even if the criminal didn’t harvest it from your public profile, they may have taken it from a source you agreed to. Every app, newsletter, or online quiz you sign up for has some form of data collection, and you inadvertently told them exactly how they could use that information.

‘Senator, we run ads’

A senator asked Mark Zuckerberg how he makes money off an app that’s offered for free. Hesmirked, explaining he sustains his business model by selling ads. That’s the main function of all that data sites collect – to figure out what you like and feed you relevant ads. However, there are some sneaky clauses in there, and when we find out what they are, we panic.

In recent months, Europe passed a new law called GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). It’s 261 pages long and says customers must consent before apps and websites store their data. So the privacy update emails are to remind you to agree to newer T&Cs. Which you probably did.Without reading them.Again.

Some companies responded to GDPR by offering tools so you can review and delete your data. Other apps shut down altogether. So if you do nothing else today, unsubscribe from all your idle services, and check the privacy settings on your social media platforms