Consumers use the internet for a majority of their daily routines, sometimes not giving a second thought about what personal information they are sharing with online businesses and service providers. As Facebook Inc.’s leaders are currently in the hot seat for leaking the data of 87 million users to Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting and data firm that worked with President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, internet users must now wonder what other information large tech companies have gathered from their online searches over the years.
For example, while Facebook usually stores data about a person’s friends, messages, page likes and relationships, Google has similar information to this and more. Its parent company, Alphabet Inc., is in charge of the search engine, the Google Chrome web browser, the video uploading site YouTube, the G suite — which includes Gmail, Google Docs and the social media Google Plus — and the Android operating system for smartphones.
Despite Google promising its users that their information will not be sold or accessed by any third parties without their permission, this line is blurred in the realm of advertising. According to The Washington Post, “About 70 percent of U.S. Internet users surveyed in January by market research firm Kantar Millward Brown said they thought online ads were more intrusive now than they were three years ago.”
In an effort to show relevant ads to consumers, companies try to use the browsing history and profile information of users to target ads at those who would be interested in buying the products they see.
“The problem right now is people are just beginning to understand the amount of personal data that the Facebooks and Googles and Amazons are gathering about us,” John Simpson, the head of the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, said.
He refers to the business models of these companies, which rely heavily on targeted user ads to generate their revenue because the websites themselves are free for people to use.
Users often find that the things they search for or buy on these websites later appear in the ads they see while browsing other parts of the web. This evokes a chilling feeling that every action one takes while surfing the internet is being watched by someone, and that particularly sensitive information is being collected and processed by complete strangers.
It is worthwhile to note, however, that even though many users have started to boycott Facebook as a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it is unlikely that this will lead to a significant change in the company’s user base or that people will do the same with Google and its wealth of products. After all, to truly boycott Facebook, one must give up the popular photo-sharing app Instagram as well, which is owned by the former. Fully boycotting Google would require many people around to world to find new ways of searching for information, messaging friends and colleagues, listening to music and storing documents. Additionally, millions of users would have to give up their smartphones and computers.
Even though Google is currently safe from the high level of scrutiny that Facebook is facing, the company should take part in the conversation about the ethics of managing and maintaining private user information. Following the investigation, there is an urge for continued transparency from any company that collects private customer information and data. It takes a scandal to bring an issue to the forefront of the public’s mind, but Google should not just aim to avoid any misconduct that would land it on the front page of every news source. Conglomerates will have to strive to control their privacy and security settings and protect their users from any unwanted, intrusive third parties.
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