Google's director of privacy, Alma Whitten, this week said she is relinquishing her role, which is arguably one of the most crucial posts within a company that increasingly walks a very thin line between violating user privacy and providing unique, customized services. Whitten, who took the privacy reigns in 2010 and has been based in London, will be succeeded by Lawrence You, a Google engineer based in Mountain View, Calif., according to Forbes.com.
Since the release of Android's Google Now service last summer, I've been keeping a particularly close eye on Google and its privacy efforts, which are sometimes worrisome, to say the least. For example, Google on numerous occasions in the past has found itself under fire from privacy advocates, lawyers and government representatives for sloppy releases of products that clearly posed privacy risks. Google's WiSpy and Buzz debacles come to mind.
After multiple lawsuits, millions of dollars in damages paid and mandatory bi-annual privacy check ins with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, among other things, Google thought it prudent to hire someone to manage privacy efforts and stop potentially-problematic products from reaching the public. That's where Whitten came in and where You will take over.
Google Now is a service built into Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" and higher, and it "learns" from your smartphone behavior to do things like predict how long it will take you to get home from work, or vice versa; tell you the weather in your location before you even search for it; display your favorite sports teams' latest scores in near real time; spotlight nearby events; and much more.
Google Now seems to me like a privacy problem waiting to happen, because it needs to save your personal data and then act on it to be useful. Users must approve the data collection before Now starts working, but after you give the thumbs up, it saves information such as your home and work addresses and locations you frequently visit. The more information you feed a service like Now, the more valuable it can be. But Now, and services like it, could also potentially desensitize the users to the need to be vigilant about online data privacy, because as long is it's providing a valuable, cool service, users may keep feeding it information. The concept is so new, it's unclear for many users where they should draw the line. And some folks just don't really think about online privacy that much.
Now is just the tip of Google's privacy iceberg. Its Chrome browser is saving more and more information about users logged into their Google accounts to sync across devices, for example. Google clearly sees customized Android and online experiences as the future, and it's spending a lot of time, effort and funds on related products.
Google's You will no doubt work to ensure that the company steers clear of more privacy troubles, but the man's job isn't really to protect Google's customers. Google users themselves need to remain vigilant and be cautious of services like Now that will continue to request, or take, more and more sensitive personal information. Consumers today are the only ones who can really protect their online privacy; not me, and not Mr. You.
I admit, I use Google Now on occasion, and I have saved my work and home addresses. But frankly, I'm thinking of turning it off, because Now gives me a bad feeling—and I already know how long it takes me to get to work in the morning.