Archive: Posts Tagged ‘privacy’

Privacy, identity, and design

3 comments January 26th, 2012


A few of us were talking at work about Google’s recent changes to its privacy policy.  In case you missed it, effective March 1, Google will create a single profile for each of its user’s by aggregating data from all the Google services one may use like Gmail, YouTube, Search, Android, Google+ and Chrome. Their purpose is to:

…integrate our different products more closely so that we can create a beautifully simple, intuitive user experience across Google.

By a simple user experience, I assume the creation of a single profile aggregating all the data about me will allow Google to surface more relevant content and ads to me. That could be attractive to some. It is more appealing than consolidating privacy documents, which the announcement mentions as one of the reasons for the change. I doubt how many people read the Privacy Policies and Terms of Use of the websites they use.  I understand that Google needs to make money to continue to innovate. We all know that “If you’re not paying for it, you are the product.”

The consolidation of data from different services to create a single profile is intricately tied with identity.  Google’s services are so far-reaching and embedded in our lives that they will perhaps know more than we do about ourselves.  The perception of Big Brother is difficult to overcome.  I imagine most people will be uncomfortable with a single corporation having so much data about them.  Human identity is multi-faceted and different identities become salient depending on the context.  Social Psychology has been telling this to us for years.  More recently, didn’t former Googler Paul Adams show this in his presentation that received much public attention, and is arguably the basis of Google+ circles?  Adams showed how a teacher did not want pictures of what she did in a gay bar to be available to view by the elementary school pupils she was teaching.  Like that teacher, people like boundaries between different aspects of their identity.  I do not agree when Mark Zuckerberg says:

You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.

The lack of integrity issue has been debunked by many (e.g. read danah boyd’s keynote at SXSW 2010). Humans want boundaries in their lives for a variety of purposes. For example, I use Google Search to double check the spelling of certain words (see… reading my blog does give you insights into my personality!).  But I want a boundary between my searches on Google for what many might consider easy words to spell, and my identity as someone with a PhD. I realize that spell check is not a big use case for Google Search. But it is little features such as these that have endeared Google to so many of us. Keeping boundaries between different identities will not only keep users happy, it is also a key to good design.

Google is only as good as the data we give it.  Because of the recent change in policy, I anticipate a lot of users will look for ways to circumvent Google’s data collection measures.  The proposed changes in Google’s policy prevent anyone from opting out of data collection and still use that service.  If you do not like your data being aggregated, you have no choice but to stop usage.  But Google is so ingrained in our lives that leaving some Google services is unrealistic for most people.  So people will be cautious about what they post, what they do, and how much they use Google.  That means less eyeballs for Google, and consequently less ad revenue. Companies that can overcome the challenge of designing services that respect their users’ privacy will flourish in the long term.

In the meantime, I’ll be refraining from using Google to check spelling!  And don’t even get me started on YouTube videos!