October 6th, 2019 by Steve Hanley
Lee Child is the creator of the Jack Reacher series, a popular collection of novels about the exploits of a former MP and soldier of fortune who is a cross between Sir Galahad and Rocky Balboa. In one recent novel, the title character suggests that if 20 years ago people were told they were required to carry electronic devices that would track their every move, every phone call, every e-mail, and every text, there would have been riots over such an invasion of privacy.
And yet, Reacher muses, that is exactly what has happened, and the amazing part is that people have voluntarily signed on to just such an all pervasive breach of privacy in order to be instantaneously connected with every other person on Earth via Facebook, Google Maps, Apple, YouTube, and all the other appurtenances of the digital age.
What is most disturbing is that the data collected is stored by those companies virtually forever. That means the search you did 4 years ago for the shortest route from Ypsilanti to Sheboygan is still stored somewhere, as are all the e-mails, texts, and tweets you have made in the interim.
Tech companies argue that keeping that treasure trove of information handy improves our online experiences. For instance, when I type the letter “M” into my Google search bar, I automatically see “Motorsport.com,” the site I go to regularly to keep up with the world of Formula One. If Google didn’t store all my data, I would have to type the whole thing out manually. Who has time for such drudgery? With the rise of “personal digital assistants” like Siri and Alexa, the collection of data has taken another quantum leap forward.
The evil Mark Zuckerberg would never voluntarily agree to discard one byte of personal information if it can be traded away to sinister authorities in foreign countries in exchange for money but recently Google, the undisputed king of internet searches, has instituted new procedures that allow users to manage how long their personal data is stored.
The New York Times has a story on how to use the new tools, which allow you to digitally “shred” your personal data and YouTube history after a certain amount of time. Rather than recreate their summary in full, it’s easier to go to myactivity.google.com then open the NY Times article in a separate tab and let it walk you through the process.
Also arriving soon, says the NY Times, is a “so-called Incognito mode in Google Maps. Toggling this on lets you look up and navigate to destinations without creating a location history. It also prevents others from seeing your past searches.”
Google makes a lot of money selling data to marketing companies (and political organizations). If you erase all your data, that may effect Google’s income stream, which pays for such free services as Google Maps, Google Earth, and a collection of online lesson plans that are considered some of the best in the world. But should we be giving our data away for free in exchange for convenience?
And make no mistake. Even if you choose to delete your data, that doesn’t mean the NSA, DIA, ICE, FBI, and Homeland Security won’t have access to your comings and goings on the internet. But it may interfere with the ability of telemarketers to target you at precisely the time when you normally sit down to dinner.
It’s your privacy. Do with it what you want. At least Google is doing something to address the issue of online privacy, something the other tech giants have shown no interest in. It will be interesting to see how many Google users take advantage of the new tools.
I know I have already limited my Google Maps history so my wife will never be able to discover that I once looked up the shortest route to a certain farm in Vermont where allegedly a pristine Triumph TR8 was awaiting a new owner. That secret is safe with me — and Google!
About the Author
Steve Hanley Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island and anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. His motto is, “Life is not measured by how many breaths we take but by the number of moments that take our breath away!” You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.