I encouraged Google to be very upfront about how they dealt with issues of privacy with Cookies and how long they were maintained and so forth. But when I would talk to the engineers they would start saying well, it’s not that simple. You can have encryption of queries, you can anonymize the queries, you can have encryption keys, and when they start talking about these things with regular users, as one of the engineers told me, their eyes just glaze over.
Because it’s not as simple as saying we’re going to do this or we’re going to do that, and this would be protecting your privacy and doing this would not be protecting your privacy. It’s a continuum and there are many different complicating technological factors that have to be considered.
That said, I think Google has always been aware of privacy implications of what they do and the data that they have. And I think they’ve always tried to be as careful as possible as custodians of that information. But there is a tradeoff between deleting all that data, anonymizing it, making it unusable, and keeping it and using it to improve the performance of products.
So an example of that is a spellchecker. The spellchecker uses information from user data to improve the quality of the suggestions it makes when you misspell a word, and so that’s fairly valuable to a user. I think we all take for granted “did you mean” in a query that we type in on our phones that isn’t quite correct and it corrects it for us automatically.
But if Google were to anonymize all of its data it would be much harder to do that to improve products using that same kind of approach. So the engineers looked at that tradeoff and some of them were more hawkish about keeping the data, and that’s a term they use to describe themselves—data hawks or data doves. And a hawk is somebody who wants to keep all the data and a dove is somebody who says no, we need to anonymize it. So it’s a constant internal debate about how much they should hold on to and for how long they should hold it.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.