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The missing context around Google’s Android privacy fallout

If you happen to’ve learn a lot tech information these days, you could be feeling a slight sense of shock proper now.

A sequence of newly publicized documents associated to an Arizona lawsuit reveals that Google’s had some complicated systems for amassing location information throughout Android over time — and that, in accordance with the information, the corporate at one level tried placing a catch-all location toggle into the software program’s Fast Settings panel however noticed a considerable enhance within the variety of customers who took benefit of it with that extra distinguished positioning in place.

Google “seen the big enhance as an issue to be solved,” the paperwork say, and consequently eliminated the situation toggle from Android’s Fast Settings panel by itself telephones and “sought … to persuade different producers utilizing Android to do the identical on the idea of false and deceptive data.”

Yamma hamma — that is one greasy pancake to chew over. However dangle on: Earlier than you soil your britches and bury your telephone within the nearest mountain of mustard, there are a number of vital factors to think about right here — factors that play a big position on this story and are largely getting misplaced amidst all of the sensational headlines and attention-grabbing claims.

It is to not say that any of those claims are good, by any means. In fact not! However of their present kind, they’re missing some essential context that paints a extra nuanced and full image of the scenario.

Let’s dive in, lets?

1. The situation toggle context

One of many extra eyebrow-raising revelations in these supplies is the half about Google eradicating that location toggle from Android’s Fast Settings due to how too many individuals have been tapping it when it was entrance and heart.

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This is the attention-grabbing factor about that, although: Google did not truly take away that toggle. It is nonetheless there.

See?

Google Android Privacy - Location Toggle JR

The Quick Settings Location toggle, as seen on a Pixel phone running Android 11.

I went back and looked at phones running Android versions as old as 2017’s Android 8.0, and the location toggle is present and available in all of ’em — continuing all the way up through the current Android 12 beta release. This is true both on Google’s own Pixel phones and on devices made by other manufacturers.

When you look more closely at the court documents, it becomes clear that no one’s actually claiming Google flat-out removed that option as a result of the increased activity its presence apparently created. That’s the telephone-game version of the story that ended up getting repeated throughout most media reports and social media chatter. The actual information says that Google simply moved that toggle to a secondary page within the Quick Settings panel — as in, one swipe over in that area, where lots of less frequently used toggles reside.

Now, the issue of why Google made that change is a whole other story. (For its part, Google has gone on the record as saying that the Arizona Attorney General and “[its] competitors driving this lawsuit have gone out of their way to mischaracterize [its] services,” that it has “always built privacy features into [its] products and provided robust controls for location data,” and that it “look[s] forward to setting the record straight.”) But regardless, the fact of what actually changed is an important bit of context to consider.

Speaking of which…

2. The Google data context

This whole situation revolves around the realization that Google is making some behind-the-scenes decisions designed to encourage us all to share location data and other such info with the company. That data, in turn, is then used as part of our profiles that determine what sorts of ads we see around the web. And those ads are what allow Google to offer us all of its various services — Search, Gmail, Docs, Drive, you name it — without charging us, at least at the services’ base levels.

It’s tempting to portray all of this as part of a “surveillance mission,” a “war on privacy,” and other such accusatory terms. But let’s take a second to step back and think about what the situation actually is.

Yes, Google wants to encourage you to give it access to stuff like location data — and yes, it’s probably making some design choices that are carefully considered to help accomplish that goal. But, critically, the company is not selling your data or sharing it with anyone. It’s using it to programmatically determine what ads you see around the web. And that’s all.

(It’s probably no coincidence that Google seems to have launched a campaign of sorts to address the misconceptions around this area. I’ve seen pop-ups in numerous Google apps and services over the past several days pointing out that Google never sells or shares information — and that in some cases, such as with Gmail and Photos, it doesn’t even use the associated data for ad targeting purposes. Clearly, Google sees this as being as much about misrepresentation as anything.)

You know what else? Just as that sort of data is core to Google’s business, the now-sensationalized notion of “privacy” has become core to lots of other companies’ businesses. As I pointed out the other week, bashing Google and selling the idea of “privacy” has become a big business in and of itself, and the manufactured outrage over Google’s business model is a core selling point in that arena.

Before you panic over what Google knows about you and what manner of info it’s collecting, ask yourself: Do you enjoy using Google services and get some manner of value out of them that you couldn’t get at that same level anywhere else? And does the actual Google business model and what the company does with data really bother you all that much?

To quote an exceptionally handsome Google-focused writer I know:

Google’s been up-front about how its business works from the very beginning: The company provides us with mostly free services in exchange for allowing it to use certain parts of our data — the things we search for, the stories we click on, and so on — to build up private profiles of our interests. And it then uses those profiles to programmatically show us targeted ads that relate to those interests.

It’s worth stating once more: To the best of our knowledge, Google has never sold, shared, or otherwise misused any manner of personal data. That’s something that seems to get lost in much of the discussion as of late — the fact that while, yes, privacy is obviously important and worth thinking through carefully, what we’re talking about here is simply select areas of our data being compiled to create a profile that’s then used internally and automatically to make matches with the sorts of ads we see. And while the defaults do tend to veer toward allowing most manners of access, you can absolutely take control of how your info is used in an ever-increasing number of ways.

If that does bother you, then by all means, you’ve got some serious thinking to do. With most people, though — myself included — once the practical reality of the situation sets in, the mindset seems to shift from steaming rage to shrugging acceptance.

At the end of the day, Google’s a business. And of course it’s going to position things in a way that supports the system at the center of its strategy. The same is true for practically every company out there. The specifics of the transaction and what value you’re providing in exchange for the service just vary from one instance to the next.

And on that note…

3. The company decision-making context

More than anything, this saga serves as a reminder that, yes, tech-service-providing organizations are profit-seeking entities — and despite the lofty and sometimes genuine stories they love to shower us with, at the end of the day, they’re all invested in building up their own businesses and selling a story that supports that goal.

Take Apple, for instance — a company that, more than any other, has latched onto the notion of “privacy” as a selling point as of late. That’s all well and good, but let’s not forget that Apple’s glorified iOS privacy policies are actually poised to boost Apple’s own advertising business, as the Wall Street Journal explains:

When focusing on customers who’ve opted out of monitoring, advertisers who purchase advertisements by means of third-party platforms should wait three days for insights on their campaigns and can obtain solely combination data, corresponding to the whole variety of customers who took an motion after an advert, individuals conversant in Apple’s advert merchandise mentioned.

Advertisers who purchase Apple advert house can obtain extra information about person habits, the individuals mentioned. They will be taught which model of their advertisements customers noticed and which search key phrases advertisements appeared on, they mentioned. These advertisers will get outcomes almost in actual time, the individuals mentioned.

And, in fact, all of the hubbub surrounding the topic can also be serving as a robust advertising and marketing level for Apple’s personal main enterprise mannequin — promoting hardware and locking you into its ecosystem so you may hold shopping for an increasing number of gadgets over time. Apple, not like Google, will depend on ongoing hardware gross sales for the majority of its revenue. It is a totally different mannequin, however identical to Google, Apple is promoting the story that greatest positions its enterprise for fulfillment.

Then there’s Amazon, whose enterprise revolves round getting us all within the behavior of turning to its digital storefront for any and all purchases, the entire time. That is why it sells us on the worth of its Prime service and continues so as to add an increasing number of components into that association — even if, as has turn out to be more and more clear over time, the worth offered isn’t quite as clear cut because it appears.

None of that is to say that these types of sometimes-sneaky, arguably misleading techniques are optimum. They are not. However they’re part of enterprise, for higher or for worse — and on some ranges, they at all times have been, even relationship again to our pre-technological world.

In the end, it is a reminder that it is as much as us to look previous the floor, assess what’s truly happening in any given situation, after which look out for our personal greatest pursuits.

The excellent news is that with Android, particularly, it actually is not all that tough to do — even when the onus does usually fall upon you to take the initiative. I’ve obtained an in depth step-by-step information to deciding precisely how data can and cannot be used in your telephone and what tradeoffs are concerned in each related selection. And the quantity of management obtainable is barely growing with every year and each new Android model. It is largely only a matter of determining your private priorities and deciding which is extra vital to you: stopping your information from getting used to point out you related advertisements across the internet or accepting the varied perks of Google providers that come together with that alternate.

The facility to determine is in your palms — and so, too, as this example reminds us, is the duty to make that call.

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