comscore Hey Google! It is time to put privacy ahead of everything

Hey Google! It is time to put privacy ahead of everything

Google confirming that contractors to listen to private conversations via Assistant once again raises concerns about user privacy. It is time Google builds privacy first products and not take privacy as an afterthought.

Google Assistant announcement main

If 2018 was a bad year for Facebook, then it appears 2019 could well be Google’s worst yet. Besides criticism of its data practice, the search giant is also facing the ire of regulators for its various platforms. In the midst of the ongoing challenge to protect children on YouTube, Google has confirmed that one of its language reviewers leaked confidential Dutch audio data. Also Read - Google admits that workers listen to your private conversations via Assistant

Also Read - Shoelace is Google's latest attempt at social media and connecting people

The announcement shines light on how data policy around smart audio devices still remain grey. While tech companies such as Google and Amazon claim that their digital assistants only record audio when they hear the wake word, the framework in reality is far from robust. Amazon first sent private Alexa recordings to a random person and then confirmed that its employees listen to customer voice recordings. Now, Google has confirmed that its contractors listen to your voice recordings as well. Also Read - Google Assistant being tested with a new minimalist UI by Google

Controversies around privacy and security with tech companies

Tech companies are no strangers to controversy and often they have come out stronger. But the new kind of controversy affecting tech companies like Facebook and Google puts fundamental rights at risk. The biggest problem is surrounding how these tech companies collect user data and how they process or use them. Facebook and Google claim to collect user data to make their products better. However, the good faith with which users complied to these terms seem to have been taken for a ride.

When the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light last year, it became evident that Facebook didn’t have enough security measures in place to prevent such an incident. The scandal saw the consulting firm scrub user data of 87 million people from Facebook without much effort. While Google doesn’t seem to have engaged in exposing user data, it has its own fair share of controversial practices. An investigation last year found Google tracking movement of its users via iPhone and Android devices.

It was discovered that Google stored location data of users even if the privacy setting prevented the company from doing so. This privacy blunder was found to affect nearly two billion Android users around the world. Since Google Maps is the most commonly used mapping service, Google was able to track users and pinpoint their location. Google was also fined 1.49 billion ($1.69 billion) by the European Commission for breaching antitrust rules with its online advertising.

Google has also come under the hammer of regulators for failing to prevent the spread of misinformation. The European Union called out Google, Facebook and Twitter for failing to combat the spread of fake news. It has also had its own #MeToo moment with the company protecting Android creator Andy Rubin and paying him $90 million despite sexual harassment allegations. The most recent controversy saw Google bowing out of its plan to build a search platform in China. The Intercept reported that Google was planning to re-enter China with a censored search engine.

Google’s Dilemma

Google’s corporate mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The information is no longer confined to the interwebs and it is available in different streams and services. In the past years, Google has repositioned itself as an artificial intelligence-driven company. It has been weaving AI into everything, be it search or Android. The dilemma for Sundar Pichai-led Google is to make AI better not only needs more data, but also unique sets of data.

While it is getting access to data like search query or Google Photos images, the voice data is the key. With voice set to become primary interface, Google needs to understand voice and commands better than rivals. However, if it does so by bending rules and letting contractors listen in on user conversations, then trust be the resulting victim. Google already does not rank high in trust barometer, its future actions will speak louder than voice.

Watch: Android Q First Look

What Google must fix

To begin with, what Google needs to do is make its privacy policy easier to read and understand. Most users accept to privacy terms without even reading them. There is a need for tech companies to list out of what data they collect and how they collect it. Rather than having legal jargons thrown all around, it needs to make information easily digestible. Second, it needs to impose strict restrictions on its contractors and employees who work in areas where sensitive data is collected and processed.

Just like how sportsmen would not like outsiders to listen to their dressing room banter, normal people won’t want anyone to listen to their bedroom conversation. Next time, most people are likely to ask “Hey Google, Can I Trust You?” before they ask for weather updates. It also needs to do a lot in the area of Android where privacy and safety is taken for granted.

It was recently discovered that 1,300+ Android apps were gathering location data even when permission denied. Google says it will address this issue with Android Q release later this year. The slow upgrade cycle of Android means that only 10 percent of users will even get the fix. This would be the right time for Google to have an App Review team similar to Apple. Check each and every app for malware, tracking software and ensure they do what they promise. It would be small start to make Android secure and thus other platforms secure as well.

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  • Published Date: July 12, 2019 1:28 PM IST
  • Updated Date: January 10, 2020 4:11 PM IST

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