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Why the Apple Data Collection Controversy Represents a Threat to Google

Internet Data Map 2005. By the Opte Project (via Wikimedia Commons.)

After the recent controversy caused by revelations that Apple has been using its customers'  iPods, iPhones, and iPads to collect location data about nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi hot spots, the Cupertino-based company moved quickly to claim that a bug was responsible and that it soon will be fixed.

Invariably, the way this story was perceived by much of the population was as another example of sinister, surreptitious data collection by modern technology in ways that could further compromise our dwindling sense of privacy.

Therefore, it triggered new calls for restrictive legislation in Congress and overseas.

What tends to get lost in the news cycles that originate with revelations like these is that virtually every tool or service we have grown to depend on in modern communications technology is storing data about how we use them 24-7.

Start with Google. When you begin entering a term into its search field, Google begins pre-populating its early guess at what you are seeking.

Smart, right? Well, yes, Google's algorithms are legendary in their ability to help you find what it is you are looking for on the first page of results responding to your query.

But part of the reason Google works so well is it typically already knows an enormous amount of information about you and therefore has the ability to make a pretty good educated guess about what it is among all of the options out there on the web that will best match your intent.

So, one way to think of Google is a robot that you have been training, bit by bit, every time you use any of Google's many "free" services, from gmail, to blogger, to maps, to translation tools, calendar, docs, YouTube, and on and on.

From all of this data, Google infers what you want better than its competitors, which is why it maintains the overwhelming share of the market in search.

But, there are "costs" from this approach, as University of Virginia professor and author Siva Vaidhyanathan notes in his book The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry).

"...our faith in Google leaves us vulnerable to (the) tendency to believe what we want to believe...When we choose to rely blindly on a pervasive, powerful gatekeeper that we do not understand, we are destined to make monumental mistakes."

But this issue of how we are served by the data digital technologies gather and store about us goes way beyond Google.

Everything from Pandora -- which tailors its music recommendations to you based on your previous choices and the choices by others who share your tastes -- to Facebook, which leverages your friendships and "likes" to offer you new connections and (as of this week) new way to find deals for you and your friends based on location -- rely on your data to serve you better.

One key difference among companies, however, is whether you choose to share that data (as at Facebook or Pandora) or don't realize you are sharing it (as at Google.)

Very little of this has to do with privacy in the traditional sense of that term, however, since these companies have no desire to spy on you for the sake of spying on you -- that threat will come more from governments (citing national security) or hackers with ill intent (there will always be bad guys out there.)

We face a tradeoff -- giving up control of our data in return for more convenience, efficiency and a sense of connectedness with others.

Those who choose to share lots of information about themselves openly via social media truly are choosing to share, so in some ways Facebook represents a new era where we can choose to live in glass houses of one form or another.

And my sense is that most people understand this and accept some loss of privacy for what they gain in community -- although the outrage among Facebook users any time they think the Palo Alto-based company is trying  to put one over on them by misusing their personal data shows that a certain  collective expectation of some degree of privacy remains.

But it is the surreptitious gathering of data about our habits that got Apple into hot water, and the tip of the iceberg that scandal exposed leads straight back to Google.  The biggest data collector of them all has to be concerned that the core of its business model could be compromised should the growing chorus of calls for restrictive legislation find more willing ears in Washington, D.C., and other capitals around the world.