With Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg getting grilled on Capitol Hill last week over his company’s data-gathering practices, privacy experts are asking a central question: Who let Google off the hook?
The titan of search, smartphones and web browsing makes more money off its users than Facebook, gathers more of their data and covers parts of their lives that Facebook can only dream of, Google documents show: what websites they’ve looked at, what places they’ve visited and many (if not all) of their searches, calendars, documents and e-mails.
But in the privacy firestorm that has grown out of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, Google has emerged almost entirely unscathed. Google executives were originally invited to testify on the use and abuse of data, but the Senate committee ultimately decided against pursuing it, and the company was referenced only sparingly during several hours of congressional questioning.
The quiet fear among America’s tech elite, though, has been that extra attention on Facebook will reflect on everyone — Google, perhaps, most of all.
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, runs the world’s most popular search engine (Google), smartphone operating system (Android), web browser (Chrome), video site (YouTube) and e-mail service (Gmail), giving the company unprecedented detail into its users’ daily lives.
Google and Facebook share a long-standing duopoly that dominates online advertising. And Google shows no signs of slowing down.
“Google really has a much bigger footprint when it comes to tracking and profiling the everyday lives of billions of people,” said Wolfie Christl, a privacy researcher for the nonprofit think tank Cracked Labs who writes about big data and digital rights. “And it’s often very invasive and very sensitive information. Many people try to Google search what they wouldn’t even tell their own partner.”
Google spokeswoman Andrea Faville said the company allows users to learn what data is collected about them, see how it’s used and control how much is shared. The company’s policies prohibit deceptive behavior and misuse of personal data, she said. “If we find evidence of violations we will take action,” Faville said.
People who have downloaded their Facebook data have been surprised to find catalogs of their online relationships, events and messages, as well as which advertisers have their contact information. But a download of one’s Google trove can be even more exhaustive, including users’ full browsing and search histories and by-the-second data on their physical activities and real-time locations.
Google has so far not been tied to the major Facebook scandal of the hour: How the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica exploited the social network’s long-lax privacy policies to improperly gather the personal data of up to 87 million users.
Like Facebook, however, Google’s massive advertising network was used by Russian sources to spread disinformation during the 2016 election. And some of the most recent privacy shocks have sprung forth from loose rules both companies allowed.
Facebook users who downloaded their data from the service last month were surprised to find yearslong logs of so-called “metadata” from their text messages and phone calls, including names and phone numbers. That data gathering was made possible only because Android users had, perhaps unknowingly, agreed to share their call and message details when they installed Facebook’s mobile app. Google has since changed how Android apps ask users’ permission for call and message data, but apps can still access it. Apple’s iPhone operating system, iOS, has never allowed third-party apps to access call data.
“On the one hand, it seems like Google has simply done a better job of managing the data it has and ensuring privacy protections are in place. What Facebook did reflected some incompetence,” said Brian Wieser, a senior analyst for Pivotal Research Group. “On the other hand, I think the reason for consumer outrage is because the Cambridge Analytica episode is highlighting consumers’ mostly latent fears around how their data can be used against themselves. In that sense, Google is not much better.”