Google quietly brings forgetting to the U.S.

Seeing all your Google activity in one place can be eye-opening, and having the ability to delete any of it carries some far-reaching implications

If you are worried about your online privacy, it might be of interest to you that Google has quietly brought its Google forget program to the U.S. It has made it quite simple, for the most part. Simply go to myactivity.google.com to see the history of your searches, YouTube viewing and everything else you do on Google platforms, and then be guided through the process of trimming that history.

But be careful. Privacy restrictions bring with them good and bad, and some consumers who become gung ho about deleting activity may find the usefulness of their web surfing drop off. Ads will become much more generic and annoying, as will searches and other web research. Your Chrome browser won’t autofill URLs of sites you often visit, and other background activities may become more difficult.

Also, the forgetting process can be painstaking. If you are going to be selective about what is forgotten, you will have to review places you’ve visited and make deletions one at a time. If you want to clean up a lot of history, you’ll need to clear your schedule first.

But the process, even if you opt to not delete a thing, is eye-opening. Seeing every search you’ve performed and every site you’ve visited is a powerful wakeup call if you hadn’t realized how much is retained.

It also raises questions about whether your security and privacy are actually compromised by Google making all of this data available to you. At the top of the “My Activity” page, you’ll see this unconvincing promise: “Only you can see this data. Google protects your privacy and security.” Really? No Google employee can see this data? No Google advertiser can, even in aggregated form? That statement coming from Google is akin to a politician saying, “Trust me.” But if you are concerned about your online privacy, you probably already knew Google had a lot of data about your online life. The thing that’s different is that Google, in making that information available to you, is placing it on the public internet. Password-protected, yes, but the effectiveness of that protection varies widely with the person devising the password.

Google’s point, presumably, is that your neighbor, ex-spouse or employer cannot view your personal search history by calling up this page. Maybe it should add, “Depending, of course, on their hacking skills.”

Not that a hacker would need great skills if a user has weak credentials, writes them down and leaves them next to the computer, or just lets that neighbor, ex-spouse or employer look over his shoulder as he keys them in.

This is yet another reason for people to use complex passwords that are unique (meaning never used in more than one place) and for Google to go with more stringent multifactor authentication. If Google is going to allow consumers to see everything being retained about them, it should at the very least increase the perception of its security measures.

There’s something else to consider here, though, and this has societal implications. Google’s forget policy has some key right-to-know overlaps with its takedown policy. The takedown policy allows people to request that stories about or images of them be removed from the database. The forget policy allows the user to decide on his own to delete something.

Should everyone have the right to delete his online history? What about terrorists who want to shield from law enforcement history about sites they have visited? What if it’s a CEO or elected or appointed government official who wants to hide activity that’s embarrassing or hints at illegality?

Sure, “terrorist” is an emotionally charged term that I included to feed fear and paranoia. Maybe the right to delete is similar to free speech, though: It’s only as strong as the degree to which it protects the most vile among us. I like being able to edit my history, but I am painfully aware that allowing the worst among us to do the same can have undesired consequences.

That all said, this is a powerful privacy tool. Use it as you choose, but be mindful of the bigger implications of what Google has done.

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Evan Schuman

Computerworld (US)
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