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12th September 2017 | 5 min read
Harry Williams from The Click Hub shares his insights into Google’s world domination.
We are slowly getting used to the idea that if you browse certain things online, you will likely see digital ads related to them afterwards. This is a highly effective form of advertising that is both good for the user and the advertiser. Google is the world’s largest provider of this type of digital marketing and it works because they know what you’re up to. Given that many aspects of our lives are managed using the internet, Google are privy to more sensitive and personal information than perhaps you realise. But the implications of this are far more serious than just some Californians knowing your browsing activities…
Google is huge. Pretty much every stat about them is mind-blowing: 2.3 million searches per minute, made by 1.17 billion unique users per month, and when Google went down for just five minutes in 2013, global internet traffic dropped by 40%! Alphabet, Google’s parent company, reported second-quarter 2016 earnings of $21.5 billion (around £17 billion). This is, in large part, a result of the domination of the online search market. Google are synonymous with search – you don’t ‘Bing’ something, you ‘Google’ it, a definition that has now made it into the Oxford dictionary. This is particularly prevalent in the UK where Google handles around 84% of all desktop, tablet and mobile searches. All of this means that they processes colossal amounts of data about everyone and everything. In today’s information age, not only does this makes them immensely powerful but it makes them a big target. This concentration of data in the hands of a single party is completely unprecedented and so perhaps we should more closely examine the risks as well as reaping the rewards.
Ever since the Edward Snowden affair in 2013 which revealed how British and American intelligence agencies were accessing people’s personal data, people have become far more sensitive to how their digital information is used. In particular, internet users are waking up to the idea that the masses of personal data that they volunteer online every day isn’t always kept secure and private. If this information is abused, or obtained by rogue parties, it can cause problems ranging from spam emails to identity fraud. This change in the social climate is putting data security high on the end agenda and big institutions are responding: the EU has issued it General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR – read more about this in our blog) and banks are taking a lead in raising consumer awareness – (watch this brilliant advert from Barclays). So what about Google, then?
As Mathias Döpfner puts it, “nobody knows more about its customers than Google”. Between the search engine, Maps, Chrome, YouTube, Gmail and a number of other products Google is gathering and storing vast quantities of personal and private data. What Google does with this data is create a more personalised internet experience for users – they effectively sell this information to advertisers in the form of targeted ads. It has become normalised to see adverts relevant to something you have recently browsed online. With the release of Google’s Gboard, I wouldn’t be too surprised if they were able to contextualise what you type into private messages, emails (they’re already reading your Gmail, by the way) and potentially even Whatsapp’s messages and feed this into your ‘interest topics’. Therefore, Google potentially has the means to record and store even the most intimate aspects of your personal data. As Eric Schmidt once said, “we can more or less know what you’re thinking about”.
Possibly, the bigger issue is the extent to which Google can guarantee the security of the information they hold about you. Up until recently, the way they stored your data was secure by design – someone at Google couldn’t simply bring up your file and go through your personal data because it wasn’t associated with anything that could identify that that data belonged to you, let’s call you “Mr Smith”. Yes, they could target you as “Person A” who has browsed websites related to topic “B”. But there was no way they could say “Mr Smith is interested in topic B”. That’s changed now and with this recent data merge: all of the data they have on their users is associated (or “combined”) with personally identifiable information. So now, Google can say “Mr Smith is interested in Topic B.. and he is an accountant… who gets the tube to work… usually at 8.15am… after he’s had a coffee at Costa… and emailed his car dealer about a new model…” and on and on and on. All of this information is held by a single entity.
And that’s still fine. As long as they can absolutely guarantee that all of this information is secure. I believe Google’s intentions are ultimately harmless. Yes, they are about making money from your data, but in order to do that they need your trust. This would fall apart if they abused or directly sold everything they know about you. However, given the value of this information to hackers, to identity thieves, to political parties and even to rogue nation states, Google need to fortify their data centres and cyber security systems to protect against the theft of this information. Even if they are 99.9999% safe – that’s still not good enough. One data breach and not only will Google’s reputation be shattered, but we will all have much bigger problems to worry about than JUST seeing ads related the websites we’ve visited.
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