This Is the Major Flaw in Google’s “We Care About Privacy” Argument

Google Sundar Puchai Credit: Washington Post
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Google wants you to think it cares about your privacy. Just look at Google I/O 2019 or the thinly veiled side-swipe at Apple in CEO Sundar Pichai’s New York Times op-ed piece.

The op-ed piece, published on May 7, is essentially a long argument to back up the claim that Google protects user privacy. But there is one major and glaring flaw in Pichai’s argument. It doesn’t have to do with what Pichai said, it’s what he didn’t say.

More specifically, it’s the less sterling aspects of Google’s data business that he conveniently left out or glossed over.

Google’s entire business model is built around monetizing user data. That’s not something that Google can or wants to change. While the company spent quite a bit of time at I/O explaining how it protects data from third parties, it spent a lot less time outlining a plan to protect user data from itself.

A handful of privacy features in Android Q is not going to change the fact that Google already has a massive profile on you. That profile isn’t going anywhere — and will likely only get bigger.

If you use Google products, it’s almost certain that the company knows more about you than you think.

And make no mistake: Google uses this data to make a lot of money off of you. Google rakes in billions each year by leveraging scarily specific user data to show you ads in an attempt to sell you things. Or, as Pichai puts it, the data is used to “serve ads that are relevant and that provide the revenue that keeps Google products free and accessible.”

In other words, Google’s services are only “free” in that you don’t have to pull out your credit card. If you use Google’s services, you’re paying for those services with your privacy.

At one point in his op-ed, Pichai says that privacy shouldn’t be a luxury good. While he didn’t name Apple by name, it’s pretty clear he was talking about the company’s reputation as a premium device maker. Sure, Apple devices can be expensive. But you can pick up a 128GB iPhone 7, which is just as secure and private as an iPhone XS Max, for only $389.

And on Apple’s devices, privacy is a default feature. For Android, users need to explicitly opt-out of data collection. Since the majority of users won’t do so, the difference in philosophy is pretty telling. (It doesn’t help that Google makes it fairly unclear that data opt-out is even an option.)

Of course, we can’t fault Google or Pichai for attempting to take steps in the right direction. And Pichai is right in that privacy shouldn’t be a luxury good. But it’s hard to see this as much more than a PR stunt at a particularly critical time for data-harvesting firms.

Google has a shaky reputation when it comes to privacy — and for good reason. While Pichai’s promises are a start, Google will have to do a lot more to prove that it truly cares about user privacy.

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