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Despite lawsuits, Google says its products and services are built with privacy mind

Tech giant Google, which faces privacy lawsuits in multiple countries, reiterated that it puts people in control of their data through security technologies such as differential privacy and double-blind encryption. 

“We work on your behalf to protect your privacy,” said Greg Fair, Google’s product manager for privacy and data protection, who added that Google never sells personal information. Neither does it use sensitive information to personalize ads. 

 “It’s our responsibility to keep your personal information safe, secure, and private,” Mr. Fair said in the latest installment of the Decode Series, an ongoing educational session where experts discuss how Google products work. 

Differential privacy is a set of systems and practices that helps keep user data safe and private. It adds “noise” or randomness so that users can’t identify individual data points. Differential privacy is what powers Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, which helps combat coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) through the use of location data in a privacy-preserving way.  

Double-blind encryption, meanwhile, ensures that Google only reports anonymized and aggregated sales conversions in its Store Sales Measurement, which connects mobile ads with in-store purchases. This technology, as explained by Washington, DC-based public interest research center Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), uses two filters: the first one “aims to hide the details of the monetary transactions (sourced by third parties) from Google and the second filter aims to hide the Google user’s data from the third party sources.” EPIC added, however, that “Google has not released the details of the algorithms underlying the proposed filters.” 

One of the ways Google has been evolving to meet this need for data control is by allowing users to turn off their location history in Google Maps or choose to have it be automatically deleted after 3 or 18 months. Its Google Assistant was also designed to wait in standby mode until given commands like “Hey Google” or “OK Google.” Search ads, moreover, are marked with the labels “ad” or “sponsored,” and are only related to a person’s Search query. 

An upcoming development is the use of privacy-preserving APIs (or application programming interfaces) such as the Federated Learning of Cohorts (or FLoC) for Google’s web products. These APIs prevent individual tracking while still delivering results for advertisers and publishers. According to Google’s Ads & Commerce blog, it expects to begin testing FLoC-based cohorts with advertisers in the second quarter of 2021. 

“The entire principle of FLoC is that, instead of passing user identifications (IDs) through the ads ecosystem, it groups individuals into cohorts, so only the cohort IDs will be passed,” said Michael Katayama, Google’s ads privacy lead for the Asia-Pacific region. “This increases privacy because individual cookies will not be identified.”  

In 2020, Google saw searches for “online privacy” grow by more than 50%, with 81% of its consumers mentioning they’ve become more concerned with how their data was used. These results tie in with a 2019 survey by McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, that reveals that consumers are becoming increasingly intentional about what types of data they share — and with whom. The firm stated that consumers respond to companies that treat their personal data as carefully as they do themselves. 

Google is no stranger to privacy concerns, as it faces several lawsuits related to privacy vulnerabilities involving its products and services.  

One lawsuit, filed in 2020, alleged that Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, surreptitiously collected information about what people view online and where they browse. This, as reported on Reuters, was despite people’s use of Google’s Incognito mode. Another was filed last February, this time for the alleged exposure of users’ sensitive data to third-party apps that were already installed on their mobile devices, according to analysis company AppCensus. In 2019 too, Google agreed to pay a $13 million settlement on a class-action lawsuit over the company’s collection of people’s private information through its Street View project. Street View is a feature that lets users interact with panoramic images of locations around the world. 

The common perception that Google routinely eavesdrops in private conversations was likewise touched upon at the aforementioned May 6 session.  

“There are two main points I want to say,” Mr. Fair said. “The ad you see may be from Google, but it’s also highly likely it’s an ad from another publisher. We have a healthy industry around it, but there are a ton of other ad providers. It’s possible it’s not a Google ad.” He added that when individuals become aware of something, it also becomes easier to spot. “When you’re tuned in to something, what has always been present is now visible to you.” — Patricia B. Mirasol 

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