Big Brother Now: How much data are we comfortable sharing with Google?

When Google previewed Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for the first time to a room full of developers and press at their annual I/O gathering, one of the features that instantly jumped out was Google Now. “Google Now gets you just the right information at just the right time,” reads the new service’s official landing page, and it does so by learning the browsing, search, and location habits of its users. Google’s full pitch of the new feature goes on to state,

“It tells you today’s weather before you start your day, how much traffic to expect before you leave for work, when the next train will arrive as you’re standing on the platform, or your favorite team’s score while they’re playing. And the best part? All of this happens automatically. Cards appear throughout the day at the moment you need them.”

Exciting, futuristic stuff, but it does not come without the shadow of another futuristic scenario trailing it. The idea of a “Big Brother” was popularized by George Orwell’s novel 1984. Published years earlier in 1949, the book examines a future dystopian society in which a totalitarian regime watches over the every move of its citizens with Thought Police punishing any person straying from the ideology of the ruling party. Now, we’re not saying Google is out to punish or undermine those with points of view differing from their own, but the massive amount of data the company collects and plans to leverage with Google Now is reason enough to step back and ask a simple question: how much data are we comfortable sharing with Google?

In all fairness to the tech giant built on search and funded by advertising dollars, the landing page for Google Now makes it very clear that all features of Now and the amount of data it will collect are on an opt-in basis. Google makes an honest effort to be transparent in the information it collects on its users, and, after a few missteps, is quick to point out that things like location data are only collected with the user’s consent. But for Google Now to function properly the service will need to track a user in many ways, and at the very least we must wonder in what other ways Google will use this data.

Google Now’s sports card

In its initial release, Google Now will be fairly limited in what it does and does not offer its users, but Google will undoubtedly look to add to it as time passes. Its goal is to be as much a personal assistant as Apple’s Siri, but to do so in a smart and unobtrusive way. Instead of having to ask your phone a question (thought you certainly can), Now will provide the answer as if by reading your mind. But what sort of things could Google Now provide that might be less desirable to users?

While it doesn’t appear to be in the immediate plans for Google Now, we have to wonder how long it will be before Google starts inserting advertisement cards right next to useful items like sports scores and traffic info. Drive past several Starbucks shops on the way to work? Google could slyly suggest you stop in for a cup of coffee. Looking rainy outside? How about an add urging you to visit LL Bean and pick up a raincoat or umbrella? It’s the same sort of advertising we already see on Google’s search page, and it could become even more targeted when combined with Google Now.

And then, of course, comes the question of what else might Google do with data collected for the purposes of Now. We don’t believe Google would ever hold any sinister intentions like those of Orwell’s totalitarian Big Brother, but it is at least a little scary to think that many of our personal interests, questions, and private concerns have found their way into that blank search field on at least a few occasions. We have all queried a health problem or have felt the need to search out something strange or embarrassing due to our natural human curiosity. Now those strings of text are not so private when it comes to building Google’s next big thing.

Will they ever amount to more than a few lines in a gigantic database of similar search terms? Probably not, but in Google’s future computers look to become a thinking, almost living extension of our own brains, answering questions we haven’t asked based on our habits and tendencies, pushing information on us even when we don’t want it, all in an effort to make our lives “better” by keeping us jacked into Google’s network of web services and advertising. And soon they want us to wear it on our face, never more than a glance away in the form of Project Glass. Am I being a bit paranoid? Probably.

Do I plan to use Google Now? Definitely (if it lives up to the hype). I’m all for technology attempting to improve productivity. But in the back of my mind I will always be wondering just what is happening behind the scenes in a dark server room or in some office at Google’s Mountain View campus. Wondering, is my data truly safe?

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  • Cody1224

    My data is out there anyway, might as well have it used to bring me more convenience.

  • TheWenger

    I get the feeling that Google will use the data they get about me to make services better for me. The same can’t be said about a lot of other companies. VZW for example would use any data they gain from you to figure out how to get more money out of you.

    • Cody1224

      Google does it to make more money too but when they are making money from advertising and making things more convenient in order to get my business I say go right ahead

      • TheWenger

        Good point. I should say VZW looks to get more of your money whole Google gets more from other companies through the user.

  • emarkd

    Unless you’ve turned off your search history in dashboard and your location history in the maps app (or latitude), you’ve been allowing Google to store this data about you for some time now. The way I see it, Google Now just lets me get something useful out of the deal.

  • Mike_Cook7

    Heck I would be thrilled if they could use it to tailor my commercials on TV too! No more adds for pads!

    • PhilNelwyn

      Yes, I would actually watch it then.
      Ummm… unless they show embarrassing ads to your guests.

  • storm14k

    Sometimes I don’t get the questioning of data collection like this. Generally humans have dreamed of a day where computers were true assistants that could do things for us automatically. How did we think this was going to happen if the computers don’t hold data on us?

    It seems to me all of this started at least towards Google with the false idea being spread that Google “reads” your emails. Yes Google and many other sites have a record of you but its not going anywhere. Its parsed by none sentient computers and used to match other relevant content to your activities. Its not like the computers know or understand whats going on nor are human beings laying eyes on it. The data isn’t passed to the other companies to make decisions. Google’s algorithms make decisions for them based on the information they provide to Google.

    The only thing to fear here is 1. the government demanding the data or 2. Google selling the data. Number one shouldn’t be a concern because the information has been piped through the government before it even reaches Google thanks to “terrorism”. And if Google sold the data there would be a shit storm beyond belief. If you REALLY want to watch out for big brother then be concerned about those that have extreme pro free market views coming to power. Without checks and balances companies, yes even Google, will run wild behind their single goal which is to make a profit. Right now the government may intervene on behalf of the people. But a true extreme pro free market government will simply say let the buyer beware.

    And yes I’m speaking somewhat U.S. specific but the general idea applies everywhere.

    • PhilNelwyn

      There’s also:
      3. The data being stolen by a hacker …that would sell it

      …to the government.

      • storm14k

        That’s a possibility. But like I said the government already has the data. Now selling it to other companies could be a concern. But that’s just another reason to keep a government that will intervene for the people.
        Sent via Android.

    • niuguy

      I for one welcome my newfound card delivering overlords.

  • YellowSnow

    I think Google is doing this with the best intentions. What I fear is that 10 years from now, no one will remember the original “do no evil” motto. By then, Google could have enough data to control governments! Wow, that sounds like a ridiculous conspiracy theory. Could make good plot for a modern version of Orwell’s book though :)

    • Imparus

      What is even worse, some people actually think that google have or ever had that motto.

      “Its goal is to be as much a personal assistant as Apple’s Siri,”
      there aren’t much personal assistant over apple siri, it is only an assistant at this moment and unlike an real PERSONAL assistant that learn your schedule, and plan meeting and so on after it. It would make more sense to say google now aim to become a real personal assistant, or very close.

    • Marsg

      lol like i said in an earlier post, i think people are overly paranoid, all it shows you is your favorite sports team, the weather, appointment’s,reminders, and home address, simple things. Its not asking for your social security number and bank pin. If you think about it Amazon has more info on you then Google, Amazon has all you credit card info, your address, buyer history, product search history etc. and might i remind you of Facebook LOL

      • Mimsyborogove923

        Actually, Google has all of that info too, at least for me. Google checkout/Wallet.

      • AQP

        Imagine this scenario, google knows via location services that you were out at a strip club till 3AM so the next morning it knows that your probably struggling and to get you through the day it suggests you get coffee from that starbucks on the way to work, then after work it then suggests since you had so much fun the night before it recommends you some other strip clubs nearby to go check out and along the way recommends some drugs stores to pick up some jimmy hats just in case you get lucky in the champagne room and then the next morning asks you would like it to set a doctors appointment for you just in case you had a faulty condom and needed to get checked out…. LOL, funny scenario but just saying yeah that is a bit intrusive but hey it’s keeping you safe!!!!

        • Marsg

          The thing is Google Now doesn’t suggest, it only gives info for restaurants, hospitals, and other nearby places only when you are within range of that place, it also doesn’t filter the results based on your history, i have been using it for over a week, but if something like that did happen down the road then i would prob question it too.

      • spicymeatball

        I agree people are being paranoid. Google’s main goal is to sell influence into your decision making. That’s it. Every dollar you spend they want a shot at seeing if they can connect you with a place where you could buy something. Every technology they are behind has this element to it. For me this isn’t a big deal and occasionally appreciated.

    • spicymeatball

      They already have enough data to control markets. I’m sure they can predict trends pretty well from every search in the world that is done. The only concern I have with all companies and the amount of data they collect now is how they should be allowed to use that data. If at Google i notice a lot of searches for a particular companies stock price and certain texts from people and then correlate the 2 that a stock is about to take off. Well they have an unfair advantage. I’m seeing a need for Google Financial. I would invest for sure. This is the world domination fears we should be having today.

  • PhilNelwyn

    That’s exactly what I thought about Siri the first time I heard someone telling it “Call my mother.”
    It knows who his mother is? What else does it know?! Scary.

    And now I want my so-called smartphone to learn it.

    • http://twitter.com/ShadowriverUB Shadowriver

      It might not work this way (not sure it is) , only thing to make this work is recognize what you saying, server can transfer what it recognized to phone and phone will process or tell phone “Call contenct “mother” who ever it is” and phone will do that, it does not need Mother phone number to make it work. Also there Offline Voice regnition coming, but nopt sure it works with Google Search commands

      • PhilNelwyn

        Yes, I know that this kind of information is stored in contacts, my point was that Siri learns a lot of things about the user, and who knows where these data go?

  • NIGHTSCOUT

    I’m only comfortable with anonymous data. I’m not OK with current setup where Google reads all my emails, and all my messages.

    • http://twitter.com/ShadowriverUB Shadowriver

      Any admin of site that have access to database can do that even if something looks private and all you can do is trust.

    • aiden9

      The only time a real person would read your emails is the off chance you were having issues using the system. Even then its not like the admin is going “omg an email to his mom gotta read this and find out his secrets!”, its just to find out where a possible bug happened or where data was corrupted. Same applies for just about every cloud service(the exception being the ones that don’t work any more because the admin can’t assess where the problem is).

  • Siddharth Motwani

    I don’t want them looking at my personal messages or documents, but I’m fine with stuff like search history and location, because they use that information to enhance the search experience. For example: “Oh you’re in NYC, here’s a delicious noodle bar within half a mile of you.” or “Oh, you like the Knicks, here’s a link to a new trade rumor surrounding Chris Paul.”

  • Gav456

    I’m comfortable with sharing as a much data as Google wants provided that data is used to make my smartphone experience better or more useful. If Google wants to show me adverts that are tailored to me, then I think that’s a good thing. It means Google makes money from offering a service that I use and someone else is paying for – all I have to do is allow it to know which way I drive home… Win, win!

  • Jeff Alberda

    At least with Google they are actually using the data to make things better and easier. And that data is out there anyway. With the way that people treat their privacy these days its not like to matter that much anyway. People post ridiculous stuff online, pictures of themselves naked, pictures of their debit cards, information about things they have done that could easily cause them harm. And they put these things on a site like facebook, a company that will stoop so far as to hijack your email addresses etc without telling you.
    Then there are the options that Google gives you, such as incognito mode in Chrome for your less than scrupulous web browsing.
    I would be more worried about what our ISP, work IT etc are taking without telling us. What our governments are trying to get, which Google is nice enough to tell us, at least partially.
    Basically, don’t do anything wrong and you won’t have any problems, not with Google, not with the Gov., not with your wife/husband.

    The internet is a place for all the good you do. For everything else, there’s paper.

  • Drew Hill

    I hope Google is making money off of me. I am sure getting a lot of services from them. I only pay $5 a year for more storage (photos) space. Yet I get “free” email, texting, call switchboarding, directions, rss feed aggregation, search results (duh!), OS updates, photo storage (yes, I said I pay for more), document storage, and music storage and streaming of that music. Probably more if I were to actually think about it.

    If Google Now wants to mention (via a small pretty banner) I should stop at Starbucks along the way to work (if I actually drank coffee) because I tend to go to Starbucks then fine. I wish they had better task support. Get the menial stuff out of the way.

    I want to be able to better share tasks (and contacts) with my wife and if one of us is out and near a store when we need groceries have my phone present the option and then check things off the list when I do them. I’m pretty sure you can use a bunch of apps to do this, but I want it built in. I want Google to allow me a way to identify bills, and then setup a task and a calendar reminder for me to pay them.

    My data and habits are out there. I’ve got nothing to hide. If Google can make my life easier then go ahead. It’s not control, but assistance.

    • hemipw54

      Pay $160 a month for ads.
      Google wants to help me, pay me to watch their ads, money is always a good help.

      • CoreyShaughnessy

        Yeah, that’s not Google.

    • servo36

      but isn’t privacy worth something ? Or has facebook completely made it so we must be a public object at all times?

      • spicymeatball

        Do you use a visa, amex, or master card? If so what you do is already out there or at least in some companies database. Your credit card companies don’t publish all your habits and neither will Google. It’s really no different and you still have privacy. Your credit card company makes it so you don’t have to carry cash around and Google provides you technology. It’s no different from a privacy standpoint. Both Visa and Google make their money indirectly through businesses. By the way Google now makes it so you don’t have to carry a credit card around. I just used Google Wallet at a store for the first time the other day.

        • zin11

          yeah there’s already too much information about me to make me comfortable, but then again, it’s not really like big brother mode yet either. There’s even some privacy in the world of too much information being that your information is buried within all that TMI that unless someone is specifically searching and being malicious towards you, you wont really have to worry too much about it.

          Also, Google probably is still more trustworthy than other companies for now. Am I naive for believing their ‘do no evil’ still stands? I think its still valid imo. And I willingly give my personal info to other companies, so Google is on my last list of worries… for now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.moreira.144 Jeff Moreira

    better share with Google than Apple

    • No_Nickname90

      Right!? Remember the iPhone has an IP address and didn’t tell ppL about it. Google tells you what they’re going to collect and everything about it. And ppL still trust Apple over Google. Really!? -_-

  • Stylz

    I feel very uncomfortable with sharing my data to google that insist of my personal info,which can be spread through out the internet and unknown companies or etc…

    • Marsg

      Than turn off the feature, With Apple you don’t have that choice lol, Siri has been collecting user voice recordings for the past year and none of their consumers knew about it till recently at least with Google the choice is all yours

  • https://plus.google.com/108596272537415356460/posts Jason Farrell

    In 1984 it was the state who was the all-seeing-eye, and you couldn’t opt out unless you dropped out of society. With google, there’s still choice, as you can choose what you want to opt-IN to depending on your comfort-level.

  • PhilNelwyn

    About ads in assistants, does anybody know if Siri has sponsored answers?
    Like, you ask for a place to eat and it answers “McNodalns” more often than anything else.

  • Marsg

    lol its not like you are forced to use Google Now you can just turn off the feature or turn of separate info cards within the feature, honestly people are a little paranoid like why the hell would Google or anyone else for that matter care who your favorite sports team is, and who cares if it knows where your home is doesn’t the government already know your residence, where you work, your income, your entire school transcript, your phone number, etc ?

  • j

    “Now, we’re not saying Google is out to punish or undermine those with points of view differing from their own…”

    Why not? That’s what Apple does with all these BS lawsuits, and they seem to be doing OK.

    • No_Nickname90

      Maybe Google is getting all the information of ex-Apple users to see what made them want the iPhone, so that Google can implement better features in the OS.

  • feztheforeigner

    Google is the one company I have no problem with giving away all of my information to.

    Plus, I’m pretty sure they already know everything there is to know about me so it’s not a big deal to simply aggregate the information to me in a new and helpful manner.

  • fredphoesh

    Saying “big brother” is getting overly hysterical. The feature is an OPT IN… so in what way would that be comparable to “big brother” where you are being watched and have no choice in the matter?

    • servo36

      its more the concept of how much they could potentially know about you.

  • No_Nickname90

    I could care less about what Google has on me. Just because I search how to hack doesn’t mean I plan on hacking the government federation or whatever. I just honestly want to know.

    And since pretty much ALL my info is on Google, you can never steal my identity. LoL!! Lyk I can easily search my name and find lyk 30 different things pertaining to me. =.P

  • Gustavo Bruno

    I really don’t care, the option is there to disable your web history opt out if you want. this is very helpful especially for “us transit commuters” I really don’t think its big brother like. if you have a smart phone then the reasons you bought it was to have these kind of features right?

  • master94

    Rather Google had my info then Apple or the goverment.

  • hemipw54

    Ads don’t work, they say it is 2 to 3% effective, more like .0002 to .0003% percent.
    Google Goggles is just around the corner, 24/7 ads right in your face (until you take the glasses off).
    Next step is cornea implants with neuron transmitters tied to your brain.
    Free is good, but Google’s free is pricey.

  • CoreyShaughnessy

    Google knowing that I search for videos of trannies pushing cars out of mud isn’t going to change the fact. People are so terrified. Compare these people to the Red Scare back in the day, and they look completely silly.

  • Unorthodox

    When my kids grow up to having their own phones, I’d want Google to offer a “parent-watch” service, to monitor where the hell they are, how fast they move and whether they text while moving at a vehicle speed. I don’t care if they have to cooperate with the local enforcement, in order to ID me as my kids’ parent, but I’d love such service.
    Hence, you can deduct that my kids will never be allowed an iDevice ;)

  • spicymeatball

    I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t want this feature. We are moving from pull services to push services to give me things I care about and not all the noise. I want to go to a few sources that can connect me with the world or I should say my world.