Data Mining: Does Online Privacy Matter?

Guests

Steve Henn, technology correspondent, NPR
Lori Andrews, law professor, Chicago-Kent College

Google combined more than 60 privacy policies in order to streamline the information that it collects about its users. Google says it hopes to create a "beautifully simple, intuitive user experience across Google." Critics say the new policy digs deeper into users' lives.

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JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington; Neal Conan is away. Two thousand, two hundred sixty words, that is the reading length of Google's privacy policy. I'm sure you've read it, well, probably not for most of us. Even with all of the notice that was given in the past month that today Google changed its own policy, changed it so that now the company has even more powerful ways of knowing what you do on the Internet, who your friends are, what you like to buy and where and when and how much.

Google is the company that claims to follow the motto don't be evil, and this privacy rules change is meant to create, the company says, quote, "a beautifully simple, intuitive user experience across Google." So phew, it's OK, or maybe not say a number of critics who see the new policy digging deeper into users' lives in ways that may not do only good.

What do you want to know about how much Google knows about you? And frankly, how much do you care? Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. What do you want to know about how much Google knows about you, and how much do you care about it?

Later in the program, Allan Lokos joins us on how to harness patience. But first, Steve Henn joins us. He is technology correspondent for NPR and joins us from Menlo Park, California. Steve, thanks so much for joining us today.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Sure thing.

DONVAN: So what exactly is the rule change? How big is it?

HENN: Well, until today, Google had more than 70 separate privacy policies. So they had been writing privacy policies for pretty much each of their services. They're consolidating more than 60 of them into one sort of umbrella privacy policy. And for many of the services, that won't really change what they do with your information.

But for a couple of them, it will allow Google to share more information that it collects internally. So for example they'll be able to use information they collect about your search history when you're signed into a Google account and use it to target advertisings or create new services in other services they create, say on Gmail or on YouTube.

So there are two main services that are affected that will be sharing more information more broadly, and those are YouTube and search.

DONVAN: So in a way, search can talk about you to YouTube, and YouTube can talk to search about you and what you like and where you go and how you spend money and what you're looking for more than you used to be able to do.

HENN: That's right, and they'll share that information with Google Circles or their social network Google Plus or Gmail or Google Maps or Google Docs. So sort of across the wide range of things Google does, they'll have one profile about you as a signed-in user that will collect and share all of the information that they know about you as you interact with all the things they do.

DONVAN: And when we talk about information, what nature of information?

HENN: Well, so this only affects users who have signed into a Google account. So if you have a Gmail account, and you sign into that account, you'll notice after that, when you go to the sort of Google search page website that you're signed into Google. Your name will actually appear in the upper left-hand corner.

And basically, what they're doing is collecting a lot of information about what you're doing. So if you're in Gmail, Gmail automatically reads your emails and...

DONVAN: The content, you mean it goes inside an email.

HENN: Yeah, and a human being isn't doing that, but a computer algorithm is doing that and targeting ads based on the words you use.

DONVAN: And that is not new. We've been living with that Gmail reality for a long time.

HENN: Mm-hmm. And there's also a Gmail chat system that allows you to talk to friends, sort of like Skype, and there's an archive of who you've talked to. Now, they could take that archive of who you're chatting with and use it in new ways to perhaps recommend videos on YouTube that your friends like who you're chatting with.

So, you know, across the range of products and services that Google offers, this will give them a lot more leverage to take all of the information they know about you and use it to sell ads to advertisers.

DONVAN: And that is the primary purpose of gathering this information? Because Google says they also gather the information in order to improve their product and make things flow better and also to look for security holes and all kinds of things like that. But the bottom line is the bottom line, that it helps them target ads?

HENN: Well sure. I mean, I think that this was largely a business-driven decision. You know, Google's facing a lot of competition in the online advertising space from Facebook, which has sort of this collection of social information about its users that advertisers find very attractive. So Google's trying to replicate that.

But I think there is also a lot of truth to the idea that what they're doing will create them to create new, interesting, powerful services that people might like. So one example that they gave right when they first announced this change was the idea that they would be able to use your location, if you were signed in to Google on your mobile phone, and use traffic information that they collect through their Google Maps system and let you know if, because of a traffic jam in your neighborhood, you were in danger of being late for an appointment that appeared on your Google calendar.

So it's basically about creating mash-ups like that, that anticipate users' needs, and can, in many ways - you know, I think many people would find them delightful. But, you know, Google is a business, and if they're able to anticipate users' needs, advertisers will also find that delightful.

DONVAN: And what assurances, Steve, does Google provide along with the announcement that they're making this change?

HENN: Well, you know, one of the things that was reported initially when they said they were making this change was that there was no quote-unquote "opt out." And to a certain extent, that's true. If you sign into a Google service, you have to agree to those terms of service.

But you don't necessarily have to sign into Google to use search or to watch videos on YouTube. So users actually have a fair bit of control over when Google is tracking you and when they aren't. And we can get - we can go into that more deeply later.

Another major assurance that Google makes is that except for very limited circumstances, it doesn't share this information it collects with third parties. So it's not building a dossier on all of us and then going out and marketing it or selling it to other actors. This information is being shared internally.

And then of course Google makes lots of assurances that it will try to keep this information safe and secure. And, you know, obviously Google is an impressive technology company with impressive technical people inside it, but it has had security problems in the past. There have been Google engineers that have abused their access in the past.

And I think for any major company, that's going to be something that sort of requires constant vigilance if you have these kinds of data stores in your servers.

DONVAN: All right, Steve, we'd like to ask you to stand by for a little bit. We want to talk to some listeners and get some other views, and I'd like to go first to - and our question to you is: What do you want to know about what Google knows about you? And do you care? Does it concern you at all? Or are you a happy user, and you like what the service is going to bring you? Let's go to Mitch(ph) in Logan, Utah. Mitch, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

MITCH: Hey, guys, thanks for taking my call.

DONVAN: Sure.

MITCH: I just have thought lately - and I appreciate your conversation. I remember a blog post, I think it was by Seth Godin, business thought leader, and his blog post was pretty simple. He says: We all know privacy is gone. We don't have it when we choose to participate on the Internet.

The thing he mentions is that we just don't want surprises, and I think that was - for me, that was an interesting way to look at it, you know, with all the tracking.

DONVAN: And what's interesting, Mitch, though, is that this was in no way a surprise from Google. They did an unprecedented amount of announcing of this with billboards and emailings and all manner of communication. So you don't feel surprised, it sounds like.

MITCH: No, no, no I don't, and that's kind of what Seth Godin was saying was just, you know, let us know. We know we don't have it. As long as you're up front with us, let us know what's going on, then basically you can do whatever you want, and as long as we're informed.

So that was interesting to me to think about with all of the tracking.

DONVAN: Mitch, thanks so much for your call, and we've got to say Google let us know on this one. I want to bring in Lori Andrews. She's a law professor at IIT Chicago, Kent College of Law, and also author of a book called "I Know Who You Are, and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy." And she joins us from a studio in Chicago. Lori, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LORI ANDREWS: Thank you.

DONVAN: So Google changes its policy. So what is the so-what in this?

ANDREWS: Well, let's say I Gmail a divorce attorney, and then I do a Google search for anxiety, and then I'm watching YouTube with my young son, and ads come up related to divorce and mental illness and so forth? It reveals things in contexts you might not want.

Fundamentally, at heart, Google is an advertising company. It makes 96 percent of its income, $36.5 billion a year, on advertising. And sometimes that can be great benefits. If Google knows more about me, it can tell me how I can get money off at a store I like or where my favorite band is playing. But it can also further problematic things.

They admitted in 2010 that on the Google suicide chat room, when young people said I'm going to commit suicide using X chemical, they - an ad would immediately pop up that said call 1-800-blah-blah-blah now, two for one that chemical.

Or it may be that I Google search something like guitars, and then later I'll go to a credit card website. Well, that information that I'm interested in guitars lumps me into a category of guitar players. And if guitar players are more likely not to pay off their credit card bills, when I go to a credit card site, the ad I will be shown will show a lower limit than, say, someone who searched for skiing.

And so that's going on, you know, in milliseconds. Judgments are being made about us based on what we search and what we post.

DONVAN: So in other words, you're saying that there's a logarithm - an algorithm, sorry, out there creating a narrative about us based on this data, actually creates a sort of story about us then makes decisions...

ANDREWS: Yeah, a digital doppelganger.

DONVAN: And that the presentation of advertisements actually has consequences in the real world because it sounds harmless: An ad's going to pop up, so what?

ANDREWS: Yeah, and - no, but it can be used in other ways to make decisions about you, and that has happened in life insurance. And so I may have searched for a particular illness, and I may have done it for a mother or for a mystery book I'm writing, and yet that's thought to be actually about me and will affect what happens when I go to a life insurance site.

And we're seeing that more and more. Our online selfs are mattering more than our offline selfs. Seventy-five percent of companies now require that their HR officials check your social network presence, your Google Plus page...

DONVAN: Lori, let me put you on standby for just a second as we take a break, and we'll come back. Lori Andrews is a law professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. We're talking about data mining and Google's new privacy policy. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. Google rolled out major changes to its privacy policy today in what they say is an effort to streamline things across their products and allow them to build a better, more intuitive user experience.

We're going to hear more about that directly from Google in just a few minutes, but users are worrying about the Internet giant learning too much about what they can do on the Web. And we're talking to Lori Andrews at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law about that. And one more question to this point, Lori, is that Google, number one, issued an extensive prior warning about all of this, and number two really makes the point that they're going to do everything they can to protect privacy and to make adjustments to these things. What do you feel - make adjustments to these things to prevent the kinds of unfortunate outcomes that you were talking about before the break.

How do you feel about that commitment that they make?

ANDREWS: Well, there are two principles at play. One is privacy, but the other is consent. And Google's getting into trouble in Europe right now under their particular data protection policies. Your last caller said hey, I don't care that they're running over my privacy because they told me. Well, that - I think about it in terms of other constitutional rights we had. What if a company said we'll only do business with you if you give up your right to vote, or you give up your right to reproduce children?

We wouldn't say oh, it's fine, they told us about it. In addition, Google's actions might violate their agreement with the Federal Trade Commission in terms of not getting consent of people before making these major, major changes.

DONVAN: But Lori, don't we all have the right just not to use Google, to stay out of Google-land?

ANDREWS: Well, increasingly, we don't. For example, I'm at a university, and they've moved over to Gmail for our university account. I have no choice about that. And I think that, you know, I'm in Chicago. The mayor is closing libraries on Mondays. Kids are using Google, Wikipedia to do their research. And, you know, think about if the government had tried to get this private information from Google Plus and so forth and asked us directly: Would you tell us, you know, your political interests and what you watch on TV and your GPS location?

Because Google says on Android phones, it will continue to collect location even if you've turned your GPS off. If the government tried to get it, as one security analyst, Richard Powers, says, it would have taken money, it would have taken lawyers, it might have even taken guns.

And yet we're giving it up to Google, and 93 percent of the time, when the government asks them for our information, they cough it up. And that's by Google's own report.

DONVAN: Lori Andrews, I want to thank you very much for joining us and raising these concerns and welcome you back the next time we touch on this topic. We're going to say goodbye to you now and thank you and move on to listeners. But thank you very much for joining us.

ANDREWS: My pleasure.

DONVAN: So we've asked you what you want to know about what Google knows about you and whether you really care and what your concerns are. And Steve Henn is joining us again, he's NPR's technology correspondent out in Silicon Valley. And we want to go first to also not far from you, Steve, to Oakland, California, where Philip(ph) is joining us on TALK OF THE NATION. Hi, Philip.

PHILIP: Hello?

DONVAN: Hi, you're on the air.

PHILIP: Hi, yeah, my question is this: I heard that Google announced that there was something called desktop or something like that name...

DONVAN: Dashboard, I think.

PHILIP: Oh, I'm sorry, Dashboard, where you could go there, and you could opt out. And I want to know to what extent can you opt out, or do I have that description wrong? Is it something you...

DONVAN: What about that, Steven?

PHILIP: Are they lying, or what aren't they telling us?

HENN: No, no, if our listeners haven't gone to their Google Dashboard, I'd recommend it. I - you can just Google or Bing Google Dashboard, and you'll have to sign into your Google account. So if you have a Gmail sign-in or a Google Plus sign-in, you'll need to sign in.

And then in one place, you'll be able to see an outline of all of the different Google accounts that are associated with your identity and links to help you manage those accounts. Probably the most interesting one, I think, and one of the most relevant considering the changes today is something called Web history, which is a combination of your search and browsing history online. And this is only the history of what you've done while you're signed in to a Google account.

But in my case, I opened it up a couple days ago for the first time, and I had a search history dating back through May of 2010 that was actually attached to my identity. And it had thousands and thousands of searches.

You have the option to delete that entirely. You have the option to delete individual searches. And you can also turn it off. You can hit a button that says pause search history, and that will stop sort of the accumulation of searches that are tied to your identity.

There are other things you can do for - with search to search anonymously. You can simply sign out of your Google account and search that way, or you can use a browser in an anonymous mode.

DONVAN: Steve, if people feel, though, that there already is a tool that allows them to delete their search history, that's only a local effect, I'm assuming. In other words, if you go into your history and delete it, that doesn't delete it from Google's servers.

HENN: Well, there's some language in their terms of service, their new privacy policy, that says that they may not delete all of your deleted information immediately. Facebook recently got in trouble for retaining photos for years on their servers after they had been deleted publicly, and those photos were actually accessible to outsiders if you knew the right URL term to put into your browser. So...

DONVAN: All right, let's go - I'd like to move on to Ingrid(ph), who's in Boulder, Colorado. Ingrid, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Hi, Ingrid, hello?

INGRID: Yes, hi.

DONVAN: Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

INGRID: Hi, yes. I have a situation where Google sort of bullied me into linking what is my work email to my YouTube channel.

DONVAN: How do you mean they bullied you?

INGRID: Because I had originally set up a Yahoo! account...

DONVAN: Wait, how did they bully you?

INGRID: Pardon?

DONVAN: How do you mean - when you say they bullied you, how did they do that?

INGRID: Like Lori mentioned, I had to create a Gmail account for work, and as soon as I did, they automatically linked that to my YouTube channel.

DONVAN: Which was not work-related.

INGRID: Exactly.

DONVAN: I see, OK. And the consequences of that so far, anything gone wrong, or it's just you don't like the idea of it?

INGRID: Yeah, I just find it very frustrating because that's personal, not work-related. And the other part of it is that there is no way to contact somebody at Google.

DONVAN: Steve?

HENN: I wish I could help you out with that specific technical problem. People at Google have told me that it is possible to create two Google sign-in identities. So it might be possible for you to create a sign-in for your social life and put your YouTube account in that and separate that from your work account.

INGRID: Right, but it would have to be another Gmail account, right?

HENN: I'm not entirely sure, but if we have time, we could try to ask the official from Google.

DONVAN: Yeah, Ingrid, we're going to be joined in a little while - so keep listening - by Keith Enright, who is senior privacy counsel at Google, and we'll ask him. We'll ask him that question.

INGRID: All right, and I would love if you would ask him why they can't - why you can't connect with a person either by email or phone or any way.

DONVAN: The human interaction. All right, we'll ask - we will ask about that. Thanks very much for calling us, Ingrid. We also...

HENN: Sorry I couldn't be more help.

DONVAN: ...a lot of emails from you, and we have one from Charlotte(ph), who asks: I do care about - I do care about Google harvesting more information about what I'm doing, and I'd like to know how can I control it? Simply opt of Google? Well, opting out of Google entirely, I guess, is an option.

Another emailer writes: My solution to Google's increasing snooping into Internet use? Simple: I do use Google search a fair amount, but I pay $15 for a commercial email account, which includes enterprise-level antivirus protection, and I don't log into anything Google.

It's interesting, Steve, because I said to Lori, you know, what about just leaving Google-land behind? And she said that that's becoming an increasingly difficult thing and almost as is not voluntary.

HENN: Yeah - no, I mean, if you think about all the times you interact with Google products during the day, it can be daunting. But there are some products out there that work well that don't track you. There's a search engine, it's a little search engine called DuckDuckGo that isn't based on tracking and delivering Web advertising. So that's an option that's gotten a fair bit of attention recently.

DONVAN: And is DuckDuckGo as satisfying a search engine? Does it produce as well as Google?

HENN: You know, I haven't used it nearly as much as Google, but when I have, I've gotten pretty good results.

DONVAN: OK. You know, we want to bring in now Keith Enright. He is a senior privacy counsel at Google. He's joining us by phone from Mountain View, California. Keith, thanks very much for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.

KEITH ENRIGHT: Thanks for having me.

DONVAN: So give us the story: Why was it important to Google to make these changes and to make them now?

ENRIGHT: Sure, actually, I appreciate the opportunity to clarify some of the confusion that exists out there right now about the privacy policy changes. Really, I think three key points that are important to get across. First, for your average user that is using Google search in a non-logged-in state, their experience hasn't changed at all today. They're going to continue using Google in the way that they always have, and the privacy policy updates are not going to impact them.

DONVAN: So if you go to the public library, don't log in, but Google is there, you can use it, and you're not being tracked?

ENRIGHT: Exactly. There is nothing in the updated privacy policy that will have any impact on that user whatsoever. But for those users who, you know, are going to be logging in and using their Google accounts in a logged-in state, there are a couple of things that we really wanted to accomplish with the privacy policy updates. First, we wanted to make privacy easier to understand for our users. We wanted to help them understand how we use their information. There are users that are concerned that want to familiarize themselves with how Google uses their information.

Previously, they would have had to review 70 different policies. We've collapsed 60 of those down now into one. We've made it more readable. We've made it more generally accessible. And that was an important goal for us that's consistent with guidance that we've been getting from regulators around the world and from privacy thought leaders.

Secondly, we really want to create a seamless experience for users. We want them to have a consistent experience across all the Google products and services with which they choose to engage. And as you guys have already been discussing I think quite well, this has given us in the past the opportunity to really develop new products and features that delight users. The ability, for example, to go into Google Maps and to share maps with a group of people from a Google Plus circle without having to individually enter each of those email addresses, it makes that Google product more efficient.

It makes it more useful for people. And these are the kinds of things, you know, we're perpetually trying to innovate to make our products and services better. And the ability to freely use the information that users give us to improve the services for those users and allow them to benefit from the use of that data, that's really one of the primary motivations here.

DONVAN: Keith, let me bring to you some of the questions that our listeners have already brought up and specifically and it's not strictly on privacy, but we all want to know why can't we talk to a human being when - at Google? Why isn't there an 800 Google number that we can call?

ENRIGHT: Sure. If you look at the scale of the organization, the best way that we can get meaningful information out to users about the questions that they have about our products and services is typically through our online facts. We try to aggregate all of the questions we've received from users and get them meaningful, simple actionable answers that point them to the right direction. If people do navigate through our frequently asked questions pages and our help center, there are email addresses that they can contact.

For privacy questions specifically, that person is in my organization that receives inbound privacy questions and responds to them when they come to the them and then the intelligence that we glean from the kinds of questions that we get is used to improve the help center and create new frequently asked questions entries so that consumers can self-help, which is usually the fastest way to get an answer to your question.

DONVAN: And, Lori Andrews you heard raised a number of scenarios that she says are real things that actually happen, including just for herself, that the linkage between her search account and her YouTube account resulted in advertisements being presented to her while she was watching with her son that she felt were not appropriate for her son to be looking at because of a rather random collection of searches that in a way your algorithm turned into a simple narrative. And it sounds plausible that that sort of thing can happen, and that it's unpleasant. What's the protection against that?

ENRIGHT: So there are a number of protections that immediately present themselves. One is it's important to understand that Google does not use information from sensitive categories, like medical conditions, to target advertisements to logged-in users. We simply don't do that. In addition to that, we do offer a wide range of privacy controls that really empower the user to control what types of advertising they're going to receive when they're using Google products and services.

The centerpiece of those privacy controls is probably the Ads Preferences Manager. They can go into the Ads Preferences Manager. They can control which interest categories are associated with them anonymously. They can delete individual interest categories to really control the kind of advertising they're going to see, if that's of interest to them, or they can opt out of interest-based advertising altogether.

Additionally, some of the other things that you've already talked about, users have a wide range of choices when they're engaging with Google services. Many of our services they can engage with anonymously by not logging into their account. They can still get the value of the service without having it all personalized. They can log into their account, and they can create multiple different accounts. So, for example, Jane at home and Jane at work, and you could use the Jane at home account for all of your personal activity, and the Jane at work account for professional activity. And Google will not link information across those two accounts. It will remain separate.

DONVAN: OK. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I want to bring in Peter(ph) from Houston, Texas. Peter, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

PETER: Yeah. Good afternoon. This is a very interesting show. I Googled in my name just to see what showed up, and it showed up that I had - I was looking up various books at Amazon, and I don't think that's anybody's business what I look up in terms of books. But it showed up all my searches from Amazon. How do I get rid of that?

DONVAN: You mean that when you went into the search field and you began typing into Amazon the previous things that you've had searched revealed themselves to you?

PETER: Yeah. When I typed in my name, it showed all my Amazon searches on there.

DONVAN: OK. I'm not quite sure I completely understand, but, Keith Enright, do you see the picture there?

ENRIGHT: Sure. If I'm understanding the question correctly, I would - the way to resolve that would...

PETER: Hey. OK. I typed in...

ENRIGHT: ...be to log in to your Amazon account and look at what privacy settings Amazon makes available to you because if I'm understanding you correctly, it sounds like they're surfacing information about your purchase behavior there that you should have control over. And I imagine you probably can control within the Amazon.com website.

DONVAN: All right. So it sounds as though, Peter, that what you're talking about maybe something that's happening at Amazon, not Google.

PETER: As opposed to Google?

DONVAN: Yeah. Yeah. Which is a whole other show. I mean, we'll have to have that one, I think.

PETER: Yeah.

DONVAN: But thanks very much, Peter, for joining us.

PETER: Is that - I just found it very strange...

DONVAN: Yeah.

PETER: ...that a...

DONVAN: And it's making you uncomfortable. And I want to bring that back to Keith Enright. In general, there's a - there just is an uncomfortable feeling that people are getting here when they hear all of this data collected in one place, and all we have to go on in terms of trusting you is trusting you. And where - what do we do with that?

ENRIGHT: No. I think it's a fair question, and it's one that we take very, very seriously. User trust is central to Google. What we are more committed to doing than anything is developing products that delight users, that are going to bring them back to Google, that they're going to continue engaging with. If they do that, then we're going to be successful. If we cross any line and we make them uncomfortable, our competition is only one click away. So we need to invest heavily in that trust relationship with the consumers.

We do things like the various privacy settings that, you know, I've already described a little bit. We have data liberation. So if for some reason the consumer isn't entirely comfortable with the terms of our service...

DONVAN: All right.

ENRIGHT: ...we don't hold their data hostage. We want...

DONVAN: Keith, I have to break up because we're coming up to our break. I want to thank Keith Enright for joining us from Google and Steve Henn, our technology correspondent from NPR out in Silicon Valley. And this conversation can continue and is already taking place on our website at talk@npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan.

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