Every day, billions of people across the globe choose Google for their internet search, video entertainment, personal & business email, and much more. In return for free web-services, they’re willing to share personal data with the massive internet giant because they trust Google not to abuse it.
Lately that trust has been in short supply, with a slew of stories alleging all manner of failures in trust by Google. From sexual misconduct coverups to company walkouts and accusations of leaking personal data to advertisers & government spy agencies, Google has been taking massive hits in consumer trust, and the bruises are beginning to show.
An Overview Of Trust Issues At Google
Google doesn’t trust its employees, the employees don’t trust management, they don’t trust each other, and the public doesn’t trust any of it. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s go through these issues one at a time:
1. Employees Don’t Trust Management
As CNET reported in Oct 2019, “In a leaked video of an internal meeting, Google CEO Sundar Pichai acknowledged the company is having trouble maintaining employee trust in management, especially as the tech giant grows”. CNET also cites a 20,000 person walkout by employees & contractors last November to protest Google’s handling of alleged sexual assault and misconduct, and a later employee sit-in protesting alleged company retaliation for the walkout, along with employee dissent on Google’s projects for the US military and efforts to build a censored search engine for China.
2. Employees Don’t Trust Each Other
As mentioned above, the Google protests were in response to the company’s handling of a claim of sexual misconduct against Android creator Andy Rubin. The New York Times writes, “Google could have fired Mr. Rubin and paid him little to nothing on the way out. Instead, the company handed him a $90 million exit package, paid in installments of about $2 million a month for four years.”
This comes after the firing of James Damore for writing a controversial memo criticizing Google’s culture & diversity policies. Business Insider reported that several women had planned to leave the company because of female stereotypes presented in the memo, and Wikipedia writes, “the memo sparked discussions among staff, some of whom believe they were disciplined or fired for their comments supporting diversity or for criticizing Damore’s beliefs.”
3. Google Doesn’t Trust Employees
In analysis of a new memo in Oct 2019, Bloomberg writes that “Google employees are accusing the company’s leadership of developing an internal surveillance tool that they believe will be used to monitor workers’ attempts to organize protests and discuss labor rights.”
Back in August, Bloomberg wrote that “Google is also building a tool to let employees flag problematic internal posts and creating a team of moderators to monitor conversations on company chat boards”.
In the Bloomberg story, Google engineer Irene Knapp was quoted as saying, “I think it’s specifically intended to silence dissent. This is the end of the important parts of Google’s open culture.”
In July 2018, Google implemented the BeyondCorp “zero-trust” security framework within its organization which analyzes the user’s permissions, job role privileges, and the device being used before allowing access.
While the company’s stated aim of this security model is to prevent future cyberattacks like the 2012 “Operation Aurora”, it also provides the company with an effective tool to compartmentalize data & restrict employees from accessing it on a granular level.
4. The Public Doesn’t Trust Google
Google has been criticized for its handling of the Google+ “software glitch”, censorship of its search results in China, its secret deal with Mastercard to track offline purchases, accused of leaking private user data to advertisers, and reportedly giving the NSA access to everything.
Perhaps the largest trust issue the public has with Google involves privacy. Wikipedia says, “Privacy International has raised concerns regarding the dangers and privacy implications of having a centrally located, widely popular data warehouse of millions of Internet users’ searches”, and cites Google CEO Eric Schmidt as stating in 2009, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place…we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities.”
In 2013, Edward Snowden raised the stakes on the Google privacy issue by releasing documents which claimed the NSA had tapped into Google data-centers. The Washington Post said “the agency has positioned itself to collect at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of them belonging to Americans”.
If true, this would enable the NSA to access data for any user information provided to Google, including search & YouTube history, gmail & chat messages, G Suite documents & spreadsheets, and could potentially even provide the agency with the ability to eavesdrop on users in realtime via Google Assistant.
Trust Issues Are Damaging Google’s Reputation
Over a decade ago, Consumer Watchdog discussed Google falling off the Ponemon Institute’s list of the Top 20 most trusted companies, and consumer levels of confidence have continued to erode since then.
If Jason Kint of Digital Content Next is correct, Google’s reputation is likely to continue getting worse. The CEO of the digital publishing trade organization recently wrote “Does Google meet its users’ expectations around consumer privacy? This news industry research says no”.
Kint’s story begins with the subheading “A significant majority of consumers do not expect Google to track their activities across their lives, their locations, on other sites, and on other platforms.” Kint suggests that most consumers are unaware of the level of tracking Google has across its products, and cites an AP Investigation which boldly claims that “Google wants to know where you go so badly that it records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to.”
With Google spending more time in the news due to protests, sit-ins, sexual misconduct stories, and censorship concerns, it’s likely that public interest in Google’s privacy issues will increase, further damaging Google’s reputation and leading people in search of alternatives.