In 1995, two Stanford University students created a search engine called Backrub. Renamed Google, the company was registered three years later. Today, Google is influential, wealthy and valuable. Anything except content. The company is obsessed with targeted advertising which manifests in disturbing ways. People are tracked without consent online and in the real world, while devices eavesdrop on their conversations. Forever gorging on private lives, Google grabbed Fitbit, has one foot in the banking business and also caused a scandal with its secret Project Nightingale.
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The company released a popular AI home device called Google Assistant. A verbal command activates the system and tells it to record an audio file. In 2019, a leak released recordings of unsuspecting Dutch speakers. The Belgium public broadcaster VRT analyzed around 1,000 clips. Disturbingly, over 153 were accidentally captured. The owners had triggered Assistant without meaning to. Really confidential information was taped and transferred to Google. Indeed, some of the files contained names, addresses and some people even discussed their sex lives.
When confronted, Google admitted it was a security breach. One that enabled its contractors to listen to private discussions without consent. Previously, a spokesperson said that workers listened to recordings from Assistant to improve AI language skills. They claimed to use a mere 0.2 percent and removed all the personal data. The leak proved that this was not the case.
Many people trust Google when they search for investment opportunities. But a consumer watchdog called Which? found the trust was misplaced. Savers who searched for things like “cash Isa comparison,” and “best cash Isa,” were shown related ads marked as “promoted.” The ads flogged products that promised high returns without saying anything about risk.
Which? asked volunteers, who were really looking to invest, to view the premium ads. Less than a third opted for trusted companies. Worryingly, 34 percent picked unknown firms with high returns. The two companies involved gave little to no information about any risks involved. There was no warning from Google, either.
Which? was not alone after concluding that Google cared more for paid ads than customer protection. On a previous occasion, The Daily Telegraph discovered that Google’s algorithm led people searching for low-risk investments to high-risk firms beaming with profits. Which? said that savers had already lost millions because ads hide the truth about how quickly investments can go wrong.
Google wants to know your movements. To keep a civilized front, the company pretends to give customers the chance to opt-out. Afterward, users can feel smugly anonymous. In 2018, Associated Press found that users are still tracked even when they explicitly tell Google to mind its own business. For the sake of the experiment, a team member turned off all tracking options on his phone and was shocked by how accurately his route was followed. Worse, his home address was also recorded.
Whenever you open Google Maps, it records your position. So do automatic weather updates. Even just by using the search engine, a person’s location is determined to a creepy degree – accurate to the square foot. Several other services on iPhones and Android devices act as a beacon for Google, betraying the user’s movements and choices.
Responding to AP’s investigation, Google said that their policies were transparent and users could disable tracking and delete records. AP determined that nothing was transparent or easy with Google. The instructions to stop tracking are difficult and confusing. Deleting records is so tedious that few would waste their time with it.
Critics claim the mass tracking is symptomatic of Google’s desire to boost advertising revenue. It seems to be working. Google started tracking users for this purpose in 2014. By 2017, its ad revenue rocketed to $95.4 billion.
DeepMind is Google’s artificial intelligence system. In 2016, the AI showed incredible promise. It beat the world’s best Go players and perfectly mimicked human voices. More importantly, the system started to learn on its own. A year later, Google staff wondered if DeepMind would play nice with others during a stressful situation.
The AI’s psychosis blossomed. Two “agents” of the AI were created to compete against each other. The game’s objective was to gather the most virtual apples. They stayed placid until the apples started to run out. What could only be described as greed, sabotage, and aggression, the agents turned violent. They opened fire on each other with lasers. When an agent got hit, it was temporarily unable to pick fruit. The remaining AI could then steal everything.
The Google team found a disturbing trend. The smaller and less intelligent the agents, the more peaceful they were. However, the purpose of AI is to become more complex and sophisticated. But those were the ones that whipped around, fangs bared, when things did not go their way. In another game, two agents even worked together to kill a third DeepMind agent. While the research involved simple games, the outcome was worrying. In a real-life situation, AI might not care about human life when it makes the decisions but meets with resistance.
Project Nightingale was the biggest data transfer in medical history. The second-largest healthcare provider in the United States, Ascension, moved massive amounts of healthcare data to Google. In fact, the tech company was promised the medical information of 50 million Americans.
In 2019, a whistleblower revealed the toxic deal. The anonymous Google or Ascension employee, one of around 300 assigned to Project Nightingale, released a video showing the confidential files and spoke to several media outlets. The proof was also provided that none of the patients ever gave their consent to have their records transferred to Google. Disturbingly, the information contained intimate details, including medical conditions, addresses, names, treatments and lab records. Not even their doctors knew that Ascension had made the deal with Google.
Google insisted nothing was illegal but the whistleblower, speaking for several concerned Nightingale workers, felt otherwise. If nothing was wrong, then why were the project secret and the patients never told? Riding on these questions, the workers feared the information would be misused for targeted advertising, abuse, the creation of new AI or to be shared with third parties.
The day after Project Nightingale was exposed, Google made an ironic announcement. Despite the gross breach of trust with millions of people’s medical data, the company said it was moving into banking. You know, trust them with your money and financial information.
The track record of tech giants taking on the banking industry is dismal. Facebook’s cryptocurrency Libra is floundering. Apple’s attempt to establish a credit card also hit a wall after facing accusations of discriminatory credit limits. Amazon continues to woo lethargic banks to establish personal accounts for its customers. Despite this, Google wants to launch a checking account service called Cache in 2020.
An independent survey showed that 58 percent of consumers trusted Google’s future financial products. However, others remain concerned that technology companies are compiling too much information on their clients. The worst-case scenario is that linking everything back to such businesses could create a dependency the public cannot break free from. In other words, tech companies could trap their future clientele instead of giving them the freedom to bank elsewhere or pay through other channels. It is also slightly concerning (and most certainly conspiracy-theory invoking) that the banking services for Google’s Cache service will be supplied by CitiBank—the same bank that chose former President Obama’s entire 2008 cabinet.
Fitbit’s story is a fairytale. Not the Disney version, but the original tales where everything ended badly. When the wristband was introduced, it turned into a fashionable health accessory. Millions of people could track their weight loss, movements, sleeping patterns, and heart rate, among other things. In 2015, Fitbit suffered a disastrous public listing. For years afterward, sales dropped and the firm buckled under stronger competitors like the Apple Watch.
In 2019, Google once meandered into the health industry. In a takeover that cost $2.1 billion, the company was a step closer to accessing Fitbit users’ personal health data. Considering Nightingale, this was not the best news. In fact, the move caused such alarm that Google was cornered by regulators. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) responded after Tom Watson, the Labour deputy leader, complained to them about what he called a “data grab.”
While the investigation is ongoing, Fitbit said the merger would not allow user information to be abused for ads. However, a former Google employee on the company’s privacy team said the acquisition was primarily motivated to get the private details collected by the wristband. Google is already guilty of amassing information from people’s browsing habits, just to zap them with ads. For this reason, the Fitbit denial is plausibly a big fat lie.
In 2019, the company was slapped with a historic investigation. A group of 50 attorneys general, from Washington DC, 48 states and Puerto Rico accused the tech giant of causing an “existential threat” to smaller internet retailers in the US. How exactly? By hogging digital advertising and skewing sales in its favor through the use of its search engine and links placements.
The inquiry is not just concerned about unfair competition. Should their suspicions pan out, this would also mean that consumer rights are being harmed. Nobody likes having their choices limited or being funneled towards one retailer like sheep. A spokesperson for the investigation said that no single player should be allowed to monopolize an industry.
This was not fresh paranoia. In the past three years, Google shelled out €8.2bn (£7.4bn) in fines after European watchdogs found the company’s search engine did exactly that. It promoted Google’s own services while sidelining other businesses’ bids to appear in the search results.
Roughly 10 years ago, two new browsers challenged Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Chrome quickly rose to the top, offering users a quicker and safer way to surf. Firefox remains the second-largest browser. The two continue to fight for the top spot. One day, the deciding factor could be privacy. People are increasingly getting fed up with online snooping – and Google is proving to be a spymaster.
In 2019, a tech expert browsed for a week and then checked to see how many cookies landed in his dragnet. Incredibly, there were 11,189 requests to place cookies on his desktop, which Chrome would have allowed but for one thing – he used Firefox. The latter automatically blocked the tiny trackers. During the test, an analysis of Chrome’s design unearthed a disturbing detail. The browser strongly resembled surveillance software.
Google no longer seems to care about user privacy. After all, knowing everything about a person increases the odds of a sale. Google remains the world’s largest advertising corporation but Mozilla, which produced Firefox, is a nonprofit with no interest in mining people’s lives. While Firefox and Apple’s Safari browser allow benign cookings (for ads and remembering items in shopping carts), they are actively fighting spy cookies. Google is making no such effort.
As far as retail giants go, Amazon is a titan. As its influence grew, Amazon decided to break into the smartphone business. Their designers created an operating system called FireOS. In 2012 and 2013, the company tried to license the system, which interested several manufacturers. After all, it was a highly modified version of Android.
Not amused by the new rival, Google kicked Amazon where it hurt. It basically held the manufacturers hostage. Should they accept a deal with Amazon, they could not run FireOS on any products. They risked losing the right to sell Android phones that came with important Google apps. Effectively, Google’s Android Licensing practices have closed the market except for one company – itself.
This selfish behavior, which ultimately cost Amazon millions and the public a great phone, was revealed in 2018. This story was mentioned in the European Commission report against Google’s business ethics. The Commission ultimately fined Google $5 billion, but FireOS never recovered. These days, the system only runs on a few Amazon devices.