Every day we use powerful technology to exercise our creativity, inform our understanding of the world, and take advantage of modern conveniences. Going without it is almost unimaginable. Engineered to be fast, easy-to-use, and ubiquitous, the complexity of this technology is largely invisible. Indeed, its widespread adoption depends upon how seamlessly it can be integrated into our lives. And herein lies a challenge. The seemingly simplicity of new technology also obscures the implications of how we use it. We embrace it with an almost mindless acceptance, comprised of assumptions about how our information is stored, who has access to our information, and how our information will be used. Because it is easy to use, we assume it is easy to trust.
If we are “to avoid tomorrow’s difficulties” (to borrow Ellen Langer’s phrase) we need to cultivate our awareness of how complex technology requires a more nuanced understanding. In order to have true privacy choices and take social and personal responsibility for our privacy, we need granular tools whereby we can have access to data collected about us (either in profiles or passively), make choices about what is displayed publicly, and understand clearly how our data is used, shared and stored.
Fortunately, companies are making moves to give us those controls, but it is up to us to exercise our rights by using them. Hopefully by highlighting and championing these efforts, we can convince other companies to embrace sound privacy by design practices.
Let’s take a look at some recent efforts to provide users with the kinds of controls true privacy preference requires.
Google Enhances Privacy Settings with “About Me”
Google is arguably “ground zero” for online behavior. If you’re like many users, your queries go to Google’s search engine, Gmail hosts your email, and a lot of your casual video browsing happens on YouTube. In the past, privacy advocates have called Google out for making it difficult for users to manage their privacy settings across Google’s various products and platforms. There’s also been significant anxiety over how Google leverages advertising within Gmail, and how search queries are used to drive ad targeting.
Now Google has announced its “About me” page. The primary focus of the page is to allow users to control what others see about them across Google’s services. As a recent survey of the dashboard in eWeek reported, “individuals can get a consolidated view of the personal data that Google has on them such as their birthday, home address, work history, gender, their social media sites and places they have previously lived” and “[…] can use the tool to turn on privacy settings for information that they do not wish others to see, or to edit and update incorrect or outdated information.”
In addition to this level of control, users can also discover the general history sources Google uses for personalization purposes, including search and browsing, location, and YouTube. The new controls also provide users the ability to delete, update or block any of the items from being used for personalization purposes.
Recently VentureBeat noticed some interesting limitations to Google’s “About me” control panel. As of November 2015, users could not delete their name, photo, or remove 100% of their birthday information (though one can hide the year), and the ability to view a profile “as public” was not yet functional. It’s one thing to have the tools to control this information, but quite another to understand how to use them. To help with this, Google has included a “Privacy Checkup.” Similar to Facebook’s “Privacy Dinosaur” Google’s Privacy Checkup is designed to provide a user-friendly guide for making informed privacy setting decisions.
In conjunction with Google Privacy Checkup, Google has launched a privacy FAQ which addresses common privacy questions in plain language.
Here the company answers questions such as:
• What data does Google collect?
• What does Google do with the data it collects?
• Does Google sell my personal information?
• What tools do I have to control my Google experience?
• How does Google keep my information safe?
• What can I do to stay safe online?
Everyone who uses Google should take time out to review their privacy settings. The same is also true for those who use Apple devices with location services enabled.
Apple: Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?
As far as personal tracking devices go, you couldn’t design something more effective than an iPhone. They’re almost always on and within arm’s reach. You may not realize the extent to which your iPhone is tracking where you have been and how you can control the settings known as “Location Services.” Within the Settings > Privacy > Location Services section of your iPhone is a section way down at the bottom of the list called “System Services.” As an article in Wired Magazine reports: “This is plotting the places you often go, including complete addresses and even a map. If something about that feels not great to you, here’s how to find and disable it.” Within Frequent Locations you can clear your location history and turn off the feature if you’d prefer to opt-out.
Manage Your Preferences Mindfully
Learning how to use the tools available to you to control your privacy is an important step in engaging with today’s technology in the most mindful way. If we neglect these tools, we send a message that a “mindless default” is OK. Preserve your privacy rights and help create a world where we have control over everything we share.