After Google’s acquisition of DeepMind in late January, speculation about what it meant for its long-term strategy was rampant. Some started to wonder if Google was building some kind of robot army inspired by Skynet, or as one humorous Twitter user stated, “… Google is building a thermostat robot dog that can learn on its own.”
Given that the company I co-founded, BitSight, is also in the practice of data collection and analysis, my colleagues and I were particularly interested in the question of whether or not this move was alarming from a privacy perspective. We found ourselves debating: “Does Google have too much personal data on all of us?” Since data privacy and security have become serious topics of concern to consumers, I wanted to share my answer, and invite others to join the conversation.
There is no denying that the amount of data Google gathers is both staggering and unprecedented. The list is nothing short of amazing: Web searches, email, voice and text messages, call records, Internet chats, contact information, bookmarks, calendars, location, shopping habits, documents, photos, blogs — and other potentially private personal information, such as the list of applications on your mobile device, the stocks in your portfolio, the videos you watch and the books and news articles you read. Never before has this amount of information about individuals been gathered at such scale — not even by the government.
Yes, Google does indeed have a lot of data; however, I am not alarmed by its volume or reach. By having access to this information, Google provides very valuable and convenient services to businesses and consumers at low or no cost. Just think about how many Google searches you’ve made in your lifetime … then ask yourself, how much have you paid Google for those results?
Ultimately, individuals must decide for themselves what the right balance is between privacy and convenience. I certainly know people who have chosen not to use Google’s services because they are concerned that Google would have too much of their personal information. I, on the other hand, willingly use Google’s services because of the tremendous value they provide. I find the DeepMind acquisition intriguing, and look forward to the next wave of innovations that will bring more convenience and benefits to users.
While Google’s reach may spark concern in some, it’s that very factor that makes its accomplishments to date feasible. One of my favorite Google services is Google Translate. Its translations are not only free for 80 languages, but they are often more accurate and capable than other commercial systems. Google overcame some of the problems that plagued machine translation researchers for decades by bringing to bear the vast amounts of data at its disposal. The system works by translating based on the probability of an outcome found in existing translations. Large amounts of text are required for this to work, and Google, with its broad reach and index of the Internet, is perfectly equipped to provide this service.
What this example shows us is that combining data with innovative approaches can unleash novel capabilities and solve extremely difficult problems. It also shows that the more data at your disposal, the better the potential outcome.
Rather than focusing on how much data Google is collecting, I believe the more important question is whether or not it can continue to maintain the trust of its users while providing those valuable services. Fortunately, I believe that Google’s commitment to security and privacy thus far has demonstrated that it will. Google’s stated mission and philosophy is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” and to “help people access and use even more of the ever-expanding information in their lives.”
I have met many of the technical, legal and business personnel at Google, and learned just how seriously they take issues of privacy and security. They understand that access to this vast amount of data comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. There is no doubt that there is an opportunity for abuse. However, if Google loses the trust of its users, and those users decide that the trade-off is no longer worth the value, Google will lose the data and its position. To this point, Google’s business goals must remain in line with the interests of consumers.
This Google user is hopeful that it will find new and responsible uses for the data that will continue to make our lives more organized and productive. Whether the DeepMind acquisition does result in robot armies or thermostat dogs is yet to be seen, but, in a sense, I find the trade-off between accessibility and convenience to be worth the information I’m giving up (so far).
Stephen Boyer is CTO and co-founder of BitSight Technologies. Before BitSight, Stephen was president and co-founder of Saperix, a company spun out of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, focused on vulnerability and network topology risk analysis. Reach him @swboyer.