Trusting Google

“Don’t be evil”

Note: My experience with and usage of Google’s services is unique to me and does not necessarily represent everyone’s usage.

Recently, I paid for Google storage. I have 100 GB now, because my photos, emails, documents, and everything else stored across Google services exceeded the free data limit.

Like westward expansion, but it’s Google

While going through some of the stuff that has accumulated since I created a Google account almost 10 years ago, I was struck by how much data Google has about me. Curious as to what that means for me, I dug into the Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

The Privacy Policy cuts right to the chase:

When you use Google services, you trust us with your information.

This is a lot of information that I have to trust Google with. I don’t need to read the fine print to know that Google has access to all of my texts, call logs, emails, photos, browsing history, app list, Drive files, some locally stored data, and location history, at least. (They have more, I’m sure.)

What do they do with all this?

I dug into the fine print. They do a lot. (Note: Although I refer to myself in the first person for some of these examples, these policies are not unique to me — they apply to all users.)

I’m going to quickly touch on some of the big stuff. The full Privacy Policy is linked above, and you should read it.

(If these kind of details don’t interest you, skip to the next section.)

  1. Google uses data to “provide better services.” Basically, they figure out people and things that are important to users and use that information to provide good recommendations (search results, YouTube videos, email recipients, etc.), and to improve the quality of their services.
“Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection.”
I’ve redacted some parts of this email. Google’s algorithms have analyzed the whole thing, including the parts that I consider too personal to post here. These parts are not in “sensitive categories,” so are fair game for advertising and recommendations.

2. Google uses data to tailor ads to individuals. For example, if I’ve been searching for flights to Chicago, or if I’ve been on virginhotels.com, Google knows that, associates it with my account, and may show me ads for Chicago flights and hotels. (This can be turned off.)

3. They will not, however, show me ads based on what they call “sensitive categories,” including “race, religion, sexual orientation, or health.”

4. When I store data in Google’s services (Gmail, Drive, Photos, etc.), Google has a “worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works…communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.” Basically, they can use my stuff for whatever they want.


On Trust and Not Being Evil

Do I trust Google? Obviously.

Every photo I take is stored in Google Photos, which analyzes each one with enough specificity to identify every picture with a dessert in it. I trust them to do this.

I back up every text message I send and receive onto Google’s servers, and I know that they analyze all of that. I knew that before reading the Privacy Policy, and I didn’t stop backing up my messages.

I was still a bit surprised when I read the Terms and Policies. I think it was weird to see everything spelled out explicitly — I have always known that Google analyzes my data, but I hadn’t gotten into the weeds about the specifics of how they use it.

A problem: I like convenience too much to not trust Google.

One of the benefits of being a longtime Google user is that my experience is carefully tailored to my habits and preferences. Google has close to 10 years worth of information about me. Their computers know who I talk to the most, they know the things I’m interested in, and they’re able to track my shifting interests.

When I write an email, I don’t need to type many addresses into Gmail because Google can predict who I’m emailing. They even sort my emails for me: I’m only notified about the important stuff, and everything else goes elsewhere.

I’ve been watching Jacksfilms, Jiminy Glick, Late Night TV, Casey Neistat, and Michael Flatley lately. YouTube knows, and has recommended accordingly.

When I go to YouTube, I don’t need to search or dig through the selection because Google already knows the kind of stuff that I like and shows me that first.

When I open the web browser on my phone, Google gives me a list of the websites I like most because Chrome is the only browser I use and has a record of (pretty much) every website I’ve ever visited.

Maybe it’s because I’m young and have grown up with the internet. Or maybe it’s because I’m lazy and don’t want to do “extra work” while Google can do it for me. I’m not sure.

Basically, I trust Google. (For the record, I also trust Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and other companies with my data. Google just has more.) I don’t think that they’re going to “be evil” and do sinister things with it.

I also don’t think that any of my data is especially important. Sure, I’ve said a lot in my texts and emails, and I have no idea what those 8 GB of files and photos are. But I know that the worst that could come from that data leaking or being used publicly (or even being sifted through by the government) is mild embarrassment.

I know that the information above might send some people into a panic. I don’t panic. Neither does my (digital immigrant) father:

“They’re not going to make me buy Pepperidge Farm Goldfish just because I mentioned them in an email.”

I’m not sure how to wrap this one up. I can’t really offer advice, because I’m sure everyone feels differently about this. Since I am inclined to trust Google (and because I feel like reassuring myself about all the data I store with them), I’ll end by quoting their privacy commitment:

“We keep your personal information private and safe — and put you in control.”

Ok. Sure.

— O

(Thanks for indulging my trip into the weeds on this. Next time, something lighter and/or Starbucks-er.)