‘Privacy by design’: Google to give people more power over their personal data

Google is attempting a rebrand with a suite of new privacy controls that give people more power over their personal data – but the move may conflict with its core business of online search advertising.

Being able to target people based on data collected by Google about their interests or demographics has been immensely valuable for advertisers, but a growing number of people are becoming more privacy-conscious and there is pushback from regulators and rivals such as Apple.

As a result of the pressure, the company is now seeking to shift to a “privacy by design” approach to many of its products.

At Google’s I/O developer conference on Tuesday, the company announced new privacy measures including the ability for people to quickly delete the last 15 minutes of their search history, a new photos folder that is locked with password protection on Pixel and other Android devices and reminders on location tracking in Google Maps.

There will also be an improved password manager designed to be used across devices, and will alert users when a password they use is found in a data breach. This is something other password managers had been doing, but it is now integrated into Chrome.

New privacy controls on Android include keeping a history of which apps access the camera, microphone or location, as well as the ability to block some apps’ access to those functions, and only provide an approximate location to apps.

Last month Apple introduced new app tracking transparency controls, which now allow iPhone users to opt out of their actions being tracked across apps. According to data gathered on the change, only around 3% of users were opting in to being tracked by apps.

Google has previously said such a change could have a “significant impact” on ad revenue, and the company hasn’t announced anything similar for Android, as of yet. It said it was working on its “federated learning” model for determining how to target groups with specific interests, rather than individuals.

Telsyte principal analyst Foad Fadaghi said Google’s motives might be about heading off any potential future regulation.

“Google is taking baby steps towards meeting the expectations of its users by improving privacy features in future offerings,” he said.

“It may be doing so more under the threat of future regulation than competitors, even at the expense of its ad business.”

Telsyte’s 2021 Australian digital consumer survey revealed loyal Google users (those with five or more Google devices) were showing increasing concern about protecting their privacy. More than half (58%) agreed with the statement: “I put a lot of effort into making sure I don’t expose my private information online.” That’s an increase of 8% year on year, and more than the 49% among loyal Apple users.

“This might suggest that Google might even monetise future privacy features (like a fee to remove ads, as it does with YouTube) to give users a form of choice,” Fadaghi said.

In another similar move to Apple, Google has now committed to doing more AI processing on Android devices themselves. For instance, when live captioning is switched on, or smart replies suggest responses to emails and text messages, that will now be determined on the device, rather than needing to be uploaded to Google for processing.

Just last month the Australian competition watchdog won a court case against Google over how the company informed customers how they could opt out of having their location information tracked between 2017 and 2018. In response, Google said there was “robust” privacy controls for location data, and users could now choose to auto-delete their location history.

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