Google’s Dance

Is Google a benign and helpful information company, or is it a massive advertising agency that spies on consumers and puts our privacy and civil liberties at risk? It’s all a matter of perception.

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Robert Epstein is Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (http://AIBRT.org) and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine. A Ph.D. of Harvard University, Dr. Epstein has published 15 books and more than 200 articles on artificial intelligence and other topics. The views expressed here are solely his own.

When I first started studying psychology as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, a doddering professor of mine told me emphatically that most important thing a psychologist could study was perception. At the time, I dismissed her as a batty old lady.  Over the years, though, I’ve come to believe she wasn’t so batty.

How we see things, and how we interpret what we see, is important – critically so, in fact. Take fear, for example. There is only an approximate relationship between the fear we feel and the actual threats in our environment. Most people would be terrified by the sight of an approaching lion, for example, but an experienced lion tamer might stay perfectly calm; he or she would see the lion from a different perspective because of special skills and knowledge he or she has. Similarly, most people would feel calm at the sight of an approaching Pomeranian (think “Boo” on YouTube), but someone who had been bitten as a child might be frozen with fear.

Perception is everything, and Google is a case in point. About a billion people use Google’s search engine each month to find everything from plastic hangers to plastic surgeons, and, as far as the consumer is concerned, Google is an information company, pure and simple.

But from Google’s perspective – and I don’t mean Google’s PR department, I mean Google’s management – Google is an advertising company. Ninety-seven percent of Google’s revenues, after all, come from advertising.

Because Google tracks every search a consumer makes, Google’s search engine is really just a highly efficient tool for collecting information about consumer behavior – the most efficient and profitable tool for collecting such information ever invented. Over time, Google has gotten even more inventive in devising new ways to collect information about what people buy, believe, like, and dislike: by introducing its own browser and its own mobile operating system, for example, and even, for several years, by having teams of employees drive up and down streets in more than 30 countries extracting personal information from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks while snapping photos for its Street View service.

Early in 2012, Google alarmed privacy advocates and a few members of Congress with its announcement that it was combining consumer data across 60 of its various digital platforms to create dossiers on millions of people so detailed they would have made J. Edgar Hoover himself green with envy. Google’s spin on this – remember, perception is everything – was that is was merely trying to make the user experience “simpler and more understandable.”

There is genius in Google’s methodology, and it all has to do with perception. People who use Google’s products interpret their experience at one level only: Mr. Smith types in “diet pills” and “depression” and “homosexuality,” and Google helps him – free of charge, no less – to find information about those topics. “Thank you, Google!” says Mr. Smith.

That’s all the consumer sees.

But what Google sees is: “Jordan Smith – IP address x, computer ID y, dossier z in our database – is overweightdepressed, and gay and is likely over the next seven days to purchase products and services that will help him lose weight, lift his depression, and make him feel comfortable about his sexual orientation.”

Within hours, many of the generic ads Mr. Smith sees on multiple platforms are now replaced with ads offering him a variety of services related to his most recent searches, but because of the delay between his search activities and the ads, he sees little or no connection between them. Even if he senses the connection, he engages in his next search with no conscious awareness that he is being observed. Instead, his attention is fully occupied by the search activity itself: by the process of formulating search terms, clicking on links, gathering information, and, ultimately, solving the new problem at hand. It’s a cognitively demanding process, requiring considerable attention and producing rapid feedback that further grabs his attention.

Because of the delay and because the search task is so demanding, it completely obscures the stealthy monitoring that’s paying Google’s bills. For all intents and purposes, that monitoring is invisible.

And just as Mr. Smith is only dimly aware that his activities are being monitored, he is also most likely unaware that by setting up any sort of Google account – or even just by using Google’s search engine – he is agreeing to the terms of a 1,682-word contract which in turn incorporates Google’s Privacy Policy.  Together, these documents allow Google to store and analyze material he uploads through its services as well as to send him “tailored content” – that is, advertising related to his online activities.

From a business perspective, this method of collecting valuable information is brilliant. It’s a sleight of hand routine with a new twist: consumers are grateful for the experience they’re having while their pockets are being picked. Thank you, Google! One could argue, of course – as Google officials have in fact done – that Google isn’t actually cheating anyone; rather, it’s performing a legitimate service by efficiently matching up vendors who are willing to pay with consumers who need the products and services those vendors offer – precisely at the moment those products and services are needed, no less.

Thank you, Google!

But two aspects of this transaction are troubling, one immediate and relatively harmless and the other hypothetical and potentially catastrophic.

The immediate problem is that the transaction is inherently deceitful. The consumer perceives the transaction at one level, Google at another. Google never openly asks for permission to record aspects of the transaction and never openly informs the consumer that aspects of the transaction are being recorded. Compare this to the sensibly regulated world of telephone conversations, where consent to record, stated or implied, is mandatory and where consumers regularly hear messages such as “This conversation is being recorded for quality assurance.”

If Google were required to display such messages every time someone conducted a search (think: “The search you are about to conduct is being monitored and recorded by Google and might be used in the future for advertising or other purposes”), most people would hesitate before conducting searches that might reveal sensitive personal information. Over time, the privacy-preserving proxy industry would probably mushroom in size, which would pose a serious threat to Google’s business model.

The misleading nature of Google’s relationship with consumers is a small issue, however, compared to what could go wrong. As both the New York Times and The Atlantic have reported recently, Google is already providing information about its users to government agencies around the world on a regular basis. What is that information being used for? Not for advertising, presumably.

Hoover knew the potential danger that his dossiers contained, because he himself had used them to coerce. That’s why he made arrangements to have his entire inventory of files destroyed upon his death. Google’s dossiers are in many respects far richer and more detailed than Hoover’s, and, unlike Hoover, Google is constrained only by the demands of the marketplace.

What would happen if Google’s corporate focus became more nefarious than it already is? And what would happen if Google were somehow hacked to its core, or if a disgruntled Google employee sold out to a Chinese conglomerate, or if a very large hard drive were stolen from Google’s headquarters? The larger concern is not about how Google uses its data now but about how millions of detailed dossiers could, in theory at least, be misused in the future to humiliate, manipulate, or coerce. Identity theft would be the least of our worries.

So is Google a benign and helpful information company, or is it a massive advertising agency that spies on consumers and puts our privacy and civil liberties at risk? It’s all a matter of perception.

Robert Epstein is Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (http://AIBRT.org) and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine. A Ph.D. of Harvard University, Dr. Epstein has published 15 books and more than 200 articles on artificial intelligence and other topics. The views expressed here are solely his own.

19 comments
PrabalDave
PrabalDave

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Cleartrip
Cleartrip

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PrabalDave
PrabalDave

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Cleartrip
Cleartrip

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JohnWerneken
JohnWerneken

I think Google needs watching also - that much power in one place is dangerous, it has so little effective constraints upon what it might do. But the whole privacy thing needs a re-think. First, it's over, there is no privacy. Second, community authority is headed to the dustbin also, specifically including public or government authority. Third, we will be villagers, each knowing all about each other - but gossip and teasing will be all (as if that’s not enough!) the power the village has over anyone - because the villages themselves will be ephemeral voluntary creations.

 In the future, if you and I disagree on right or wrong, we will get to ignore each other, be rude to each other, or one or the other of us relocates - no one will be able to enforce anything on anybody by any means whatsoever. Paradise I think, the End of the Tyranny of the concept of Community!

MatthewFinlay
MatthewFinlay

What do you have to hide from Google? Me? Nothing. I appreciate the effectiveness of their targeting. It makes my life more efficient and easier. End of story.

You might have a good second career as a screenwriter, though. I hear Oliver Stone is looking for some good conspiracy theorists.

SolerosJohn
SolerosJohn

@MatthewFinlay Your sarcastic response proves the thesis of Mr Eptein's argument.  Although not your intention, your reaction clearly personifies the awareness and perception of the overwhelming majority of Google's audience.

Thank you, for validating his point exactly.

jhouse770
jhouse770

@MatthewFinlay What do you have to hide from the FBI? Would you approve if Google allowed the FBI unfettered access to your personal, financial and medical information? Fast forward 20 years...you are clueless where this is leading Think tax collection, insurance risk, IRS monitoring your assets, etc.

KeepingEyesOpen
KeepingEyesOpen

Your points are "possibly" correct, and there is a "potential" risk of harm.  Maybe.  Think about this for a moment.

It is ironic that many will worry about this, or place the risk of harm in the same category as the harm we have endured for years - decades - at the hands of the traditional monopoly telephone companies.  These companies are notorious for "cramming" bogus charges for sleazy 900-number outfits onto our phone bills.  And don't forget the "slamming," or authorized switching of long-distance services to those benefitting the phone company, without authorization.  I was personally the victim of these practices more than once and had to argue to have the charges removed.  The practices cumulatively cost customers large amounts of money over the years.

Contrast this with Google and others, who simply track your browsing and web search habits, anonymize the data and use it to sell information to advertisers. These advertisers then target ads to you.  The result is that you see ads based on your own habits and preferences, rather than random ads.  Not more ads - the same number of ads, just targeted.  It borders on being a bit creepy sometimes, but where is the harm in this?  And remember that for this ad targeting you actually receive "free" services, many of them excellent quality - Google search, Gmail, Google Voice, Google Maps, Google Earth ...

Google has never cost me a dime, and has never done any harm of which I am aware.  You correctly point out that there is a potential risk.  We should be aware of that and watch closely.  There is plenty of reason to be wary, but no cause for action.  Yet.

Yes, keep a wary eye out.  But I would watch the telephone and cable companies with much more concern than that directed toward Google.

One more comment.  During the next few years there will be competition among various parties for control of point of sale transactions involving NFC (near field communications) technology.  Tap a smart phone to a sales register or ATM to make a financial transaction.  Who will dominate in profit from this?  Verizon?  AT&T? Apple?  Google? The banks?  Based on my experience, I would not want to let the telephone companies anywhere near my financial transactions.  So far, I no reason to fear Google, Apple or the banks.  On second thought, scratch the banks.




NoLawyers
NoLawyers

What gets scarier is this. I heard of a group that somebody saw on Facebook " One million mothers against gun control". I did a search for it and came up with a multitude of links for it. My wife did the same search and came up with 180 results for Mothers wanting gun control and all versions of it. Not one result for the mothers against. Search results are getting poisoned by your history and/or the link that you may have clicked on. Not sure how it was done but I cleared her cache and history and then she got the same results as I did. By the way, the results for that search were the similar with Yahoo and Google. What is bad about Google from a consumer standpoint, is that your search for things will tend show those who pay the most in advertising first so if I am looking for say, a breeder of Irish Wolfhounds, I may not readily find one of the most popular breeders.

KeepingEyesOpen
KeepingEyesOpen

@NoLawyers Your comment about the search results being poisoned or slanted by your prior  search queries (or prior browsing habits) is spot on.  As is your point about search results slanted by paid advertisers.  Have you ever “googled” your doctor’s name to look up the phone number?  Instead of returning what you wanted - the address and phone number of the doctor’s office - the result will be a large number of useless aggregators of medical provider information (“healthgrades.com”, “ucomparehealthcare.com” and so on).

Hopefully, the factor that will save us from Google assimilating too much power is that Google is just another private company, competing for our eyeballs and mouse clicks.  I already find myself trying other search engines - Bing, for example - in an attempt to get around this.  When Google becomes too annoying, we should be free to go elsewhere.

There is already some evidence that customers will drift away when they are not treated well.  For example, there are anecdotal reports that some Facebook users are becoming disenchanted.  To me, the Facebook experience is much more creepy than that of Google, in that the ads targeted to you result not only from your actions but also from those of your “friends” or from unknown people who simply “like” you.  That trumps Google’s creep factor by an order of magnitude.  

As long as Google is just a private company competing for us to use its services voluntarily, we should be OK.  Big companies who annoy their customers eventually stumble.  Witness Microsoft.  15 years ago we were afraid of its monopoly position, but now it is trying to catch Google and Apple.  So I wouldn’t be that fearful of private companies that transiently dominate a particular internet “space”, as they say.  I would afraid, however, if it were a government entity that did the same thing.  And I would be wary of too much government access to Google’s (or Apple’s, or Microsoft’s) data banks.


luscusrex
luscusrex

The flaw in this article, is that he fails to mention, that Apple, MS, and Telecoms have all been dreaming of this, in essence, how can I profit from this consumer? Granted that Google is a genius at it. 

The scary part is that without being the Government they are all Big Brother, and like J. Edgar they can use that info to obtain anything they want from Governments, other Companies and Individuals.

Matt43
Matt43

Your criticism is mostly fair, but don't address a wider generational gap which inhabits the spaces between your statements.  Specifically, in a world of Facebook, twitter, and blogs, personal privacy is less of a concern to millenials (and the upcoming gen z) then it ever did to Boomers and Gen Xs.  So your gay, big deal, say those who grew up with civil unions and gay marriage.  So you like S&M, that's cool whatever floats your boat.  Oh, your parents weren't married when you were born?  Mine neither.