Google is flirting with what Chairman Eric Schmidt once called “the creepy line.”
At its recent developer conference, the Mountain View, Calif., search giant showcased a number of new personalized technologies that many consumers will find useful, such as alerts of upcoming flights and restaurant recommendations.
But the services underscore the vast amounts of ever-more-personal data Google has collected on its users. And given its history and the apparent attitudes of its leadership toward consumer privacy, the services raise concerns about how Google collected that data and what else it's doing with it.
That's because, while the company typically offers such services nominally for free, it's not being simply altruistic. We pay with our data for the services Google offers, and it's not always clear how the company uses that currency.
“People need to understand the fundamental business model of Google. We are not Google's customers. We're Google's product,” said John Simpson, director of the privacy project at Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group.
But it can be difficult for consumers to remember that point, especially when Google rolls out all its neat stuff.
Google's Maps site, for instance, has been revamped. Now, when you click on a pinpointed location on the map and ask for directions to it, Google will automatically provide directions from your home; you don't have to enter your address first. The Maps application will suggest restaurants you may like based on ones you've visited in the past.
Similarly, Google's photo gallery in its Google Plus social network will automatically highlight photos in your collection. Among pictures it will bring to the fore are those that include your friends and family members —which it detects automatically.
Meanwhile, Android phones will have the ability to detect whether users are walking, cycling or driving. And users will be able to set so-called geofences, which can send alerts when they arrive at or cross certain locations.
With these services, the company is providing a compelling, even cool service for consumers. But what's enabling it to do so is the detailed dossiers it has compiled on each of us. If this detailed information were being collected by a neighbor or the government, many of us would consider it disturbing or even dangerous.
Google knows this, of course. In an interview with “The Atlantic” three years ago, Schmidt foretold this kind of future in which Google would offer services so sophisticated that the company would know — without users having to type anything at all — what they were thinking about.
In an emailed statement, Google spokeswoman Nadja Blagojevic said that the company considers consumers' privacy and security one of its top priorities. “We aim to provide the world's strongest security and privacy policies as well as easy-to-use tools,” she said.
And Eric Goldman, who runs the high-tech law institute at Santa Clara University, argued that there's little to worry about.
“When companies overstep their bounds, consumers just won't use the service or will think lesser of the brand and will reduce their loyalty accordingly,” he said. “That pushback can be incredibly effective at changing the behavior of companies.”
But Goldman acknowledges that the line between creepy and cool is not fixed and that corporations try to push the boundaries of what's acceptable behavior. Privacy advocates note that it's in those companies' economic interest to have people share more data.
“The danger is that they're going down a slope, and all of a sudden, they've passed the bright line and you don't know how they got there,” he said.