On Big Tech And Privacy

On Big Tech And Privacy

Few words you hear more from big tech companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google than “privacy” these days. For adblocker and privacy-focused browsers vendor Ghostery, however, what they mean when they say privacy you mean when you use that word.

“They’re all redefining privacy to their own benefit in many ways,” Ghostery CEO Jean-Paul Schmetz told me recently on a TechFirst podcast.

“But of course, I think privacy should be defined from the perspective of the user, right … that’s the only perspective that really matters.”

For example, Apple’s App Tracking Transparency defines privacy as companies not sharing data they’ve collected about you with other companies without your permission…not companies that are collecting data about you, period. Google’s deprecation of third-party cookies (recently delayed again) will prevent cross-site tracking, which is good for privacy, but doesn’t hurt Google at all because Google has a first-party relationship with you . And Facebook’s ever-more-detailed privacy settings are outlined in crucial minutes that (except for Facebook) can see everything about you, but don’t protect you from the big social network you’re giving everything to. at all.

So, even with all the talk, talk, talk…we’re all still exposed in the dark on the web, at least in terms of our personal data and digital behavior.

“Each American is being leaked some data point about 750 times a day, while Europeans are … 360 times a day,” says Schmetz.

In other words, that giant of legislation, GDPR, which forced more mouse clicks (accepting or rejecting cookies) than any other law in history, only managed to halve Europe’s data privacy exposure.

The interesting thing, according to Schmetz, is that all this data collection, done in the name of making ads more relevant and effective, doesn’t actually fulfill its task.

“I don’t think we’d be losing as much in advertising or machine learning if people collected data in a way that didn’t automatically reveal the lives of their users,” says Schmetz. “It really can be done. We have proven it many times, you know, academically, etc. it is possible. It is only being done because there is no reason to do it. Users and governments and nobody else are really pushing in that direction.”

There is evidence that publishers, especially news outlets, can earn more when they drop layers of adtech targeting (each of which takes its own slice of revenue) and simply enable contextual ads, which do not require personal information. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties cites, for example, a Norwegian news agency that increased revenue for contextual ads compared to tracker-based ads over a 12-month period, and a Dutch publisher that increased revenue by 149%.

And Google’s Privacy Sandbox, still in development and not widely released, is a technology intended to enable that, keeping targeted data on the device so that relevant ads can be surfaced to the right people without their take data, disclose their data, or put their identity at risk.

However, it’s not clear that small, highly specific brands can adequately use contextual targeting to reach niche audiences … even if publishers do better.

Be that as it may, Schmetz says Google is actually moving to break privacy-enhancing tools by changing how extensions work in its Chrome browser.

“They have a lot of different policies, but the one you’re focusing on in terms of anti-tracking is basically saying you can block a request but you can’t modify it,” says Schmetz. “But if you can only block … the site no longer works. And you can’t remove identifiers like we do at Ghostery to say like, ‘”Look, the web works the way it’s supposed to, it’s just that your identifiers aren’t getting through.”

Translation: the Ghostery extension on Chrome cannot modify data that goes out of the browser that would give your personal information to a website. The extension can only block it, which means that a website you want to use will not work.

Google is understandably concerned: an extension that could read and modify data sent and received by your browser could, in the wrong hands, become a great tool for siphoning cash from banks or crypto to drain from users’ wallets.

Still, Schmetz has a point:

“The reality is that Google has become a monopoly in browsing, because you know Edge is also based on Chromium,” he says. “Firefox is not as strong as it used to be and gets all its revenue from Google. And Google felt they can push the extension ecosystem now.”

That’s something that the new Digital Markets Act in Europe could address, since Google has leadership in several areas: search, email, browsers and many others. The DMA can force layoffs, and that’s a potential challenge for Google in the next few years. Apple is not immune: by owning iPhone and iOS and the App Store, it controls what happens on the platform and who can access it.

Similar issues could face big tech in general – Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft as well as Google and Apple, and many of them come back to data.

Data is a wonderful thing, but it has its challenges, says Schmetz.

“The data sets that are being built are a small part of the 21st century nuclear waste, right? Like … nuclear energy is great, but it has this problem with waste, and the web and machine learning are great, but there’s all this waste of data that’s been collected and it really shouldn’t be there.”

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