27 February of 2014

Seeing through Google

by Marieke Scherjon & Hanna Meyer Thuestad


You’ve probably already heard the buzz about Google’s new gadget- the Google Glass. This – slightly futuristic – accessory has caused a lot of controversy, while it’s not even launched yet. Right now, this gadget is only available for test drivers, Google’s so-called Glass Explorers, but expectations are the glasses will be on the market sometime in 2014.

For all the laggards; the Google Glass is a compact, eyewear-shaped computer. This gadget has a hands-free format, and enables augmented reality. What you used to see on your smartphone screen, you can now see floating in the air. With Google Glass you can be online 24/7, read messages, use Google Maps, take pictures with the blink of an eye, and more.

So what is not to like? Well, you should realize that when you use the Glass, Google could track your every move. Google is already known for collecting our private data; will the Google Glass enhance Google’s questionable habit of data collecting? We have to give them credit; Google fully understands the value of data in this digital era. Google outsmarted other companies in turning data into cold hard cash. The way Google does this is equally interesting as it is mysterious. All we know, is how they get our data, organize it in algorithms, and then publish the manipulated data. However, the question remains, what happens in between?

We arranged an interview with the spokesperson of Google Norway, Christine Sørensen, to get some inside information on their business. Unfortunately, this turned out to be more complicated than expected. When asking Google what their dataflow looks like, and what actually happens with our personal information, Google Norway replied;

“We choose not to discuss this publicly.”

Bummer. Like asking Coca Cola for their secret recipe. Anyhow, Google has lots of tricks up their sleeve when it comes to collecting data. A common misunderstanding is that Google can only gather data from people who are using Google products, which is not entirely true. Google actually monitors more than 90% of all Internet users worldwide. They gather data from numerous online elements, which we displayed in the following text box.


So how do they make money with all this data, when most of their services are free? A simplified explanation would be that Google is an advertising company. Because of all this big data collecting, Google has great knowledge of user patterns and behaviour. With this valuable information, Google can organize data into thousands of segments. This attracts lots of advertisers, because Google can help them reach their ideal target group. This also means; Google basically sells your personal information to other companies.

Logically, Google’s revenue sources mainly exist out of online advertisement. Google has shown an exponential growth over the past couple of years. Today, their market value hits a little over 407 billion US dollars. Their revenue in 2013 amounted a little over 33 billion USD. Which is just as much as the value of 31 of the world’s poorest countries, altogether. Just suck on that, for a minute.


According to Christine Sørensen, ‘the heart of the company’ is the search engine. This too, is an interesting Google feature. Namely, Google Search has some odd properties. For instance, when you type in a word in Google search, Google will store that content, even if you didn’t actually press the ‘search button’. And it gets even more interesting! If you additionally have a Gmail account, use Google Earth or log onto YouTube, then you have agreed upon Google using, modifying, publicly displaying and distributing your content amongst others. This license continues, even if you stop using their services. Oh! You didn’t know that? It’s stated clearly somewhere in Google’s Term of Service. Which also says, that they conveniently have the right to change their Terms of Service – at all times.

So, in theory, we actually do give consent to Google to get access to our personal data. Think of iTunes, Gmail etc. But has anyone ever really read the Privacy Policy or Terms of Service? A lot of companies make Terms of Service as unreadable as possible. Think; lengthy texts, small font, caps lock, endless sentences etc. However, Google Norway’s spokesperson had the following to say about that;

Google’s policies are written with the user in mind, and we are very serious about keeping data safe and secure. You can always choose to delete your account or move to another service, and we give you the option to take all your data with you if you choose to do so.

Hm. Now it get’s really interesting. Didn’t the Terms of Service also say that Google has the right to make a – permanent – backup of all your data?

Of course, Google’s business is completely legal. But does that mean it is ethically okay to gather people’s private data for profit? Most people would disagree, even though they consented to the Terms of Service.

Luckily, there are many laws and restrictions that limit the business of data transferring. For example, according to Atle Årnes, Norway’s Data Privacy Directory, Google has to adapt to the laws given by the European Privacy Directory. These laws are carried out by the local Data Privacy Directories in every European country. And if Google doesn’t choose to do so? Well, then Google can await some mind-blowing fines. Google actually has crossed the line before. For instance, Google was – illegally – sniffing on unencrypted Wi-Fi connections, with their Google mapping cars. This resulted in a couple of fines, from Holland and Norway. And Germany? Well, they banned the cars altogether.

Ethical or not, Google Glass will just be an additional tool in the big data hunt. With Google Glass, Google has access to what you say, what others around you say, and what you see. It will track your location 24 hours a day, and even be able to predict where you are going. With the introduction of Google Glass, the creepy face of technology, finally comes out.

The main cause of the skepticism, according to Google, is people simply not understanding the product. Despite the endless possibilities for Google Glass, Google has agreed not to integrate any such features as face recognition. However, these applications are still being developed, which is kind of contradictory. Nevertheless, Google has a simple stated solution for possible misuse of the Google Glass — ‘Don’t be a glasshole.’


The word on the street

Olav Haraldsen Roen, 20, Oslo and Akershus University of Applied Sciences (HiOA)

‘When using the Internet in 2014 you can’t really be safe, even if you’re using filters or proxies. But at the same time I choose to be on the Internet, I choose to have a Gmail account- so then again it’s my choice. This makes it a grey zone.’

- Google Glass? No.

Mette Rudolfsen, 21, Oslo and Akershus University of Applied Sciences (HiOA)

‘I don’t really understand why companies such as Google are storing private information about their users, nor do I take precaution when surfing the web.’

- Google Glass? No.

Runar, 24, Norwegian Business School (BI)

 ‘If Google doesn’t sell private data to other spy organizations like the NSA, then I would be cool with it. Because they need to make money like any other big company, but I value my private life and I don’t want the big companies to see whatever I do. So it’s an ethical grey zone.’

- Google Glass?  No. It’s a cool prototype, but not functional.

Header picture by: nolifebeforecoffee /edited

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