Dress up: Members of Google’s Data Liberation Front have the job of giving users ways to download personal data and files from the company’s servers.
Google’s move provoked some criticism from privacy advocates. It also left consumers with a stark choice: either agree to the new rules or stay signed out of Google accounts. “We’re committed to data liberation,” the company said in a blog post announcing the new policies. “So if you want to take your data elsewhere you can.”
Google won’t say exactly how many people have exported their data and stopped using different services. However, Fitzpatrick says use of the data download tools is relatively low and that in his experience, many people who do export their data from a Google product will continue to use it; they may have simply wanted a copy of their files.
Fatemeh Khatibloo, an analyst at Forrester Research, thinks the tools Google gives users are still somewhat difficult to locate, suggesting that they’re aimed at a narrow band of power users and those most concerned about privacy. “What Google ought to be doing: they should create a portal where people could visualize themselves. Do it in a way that’s kind of fun,” she says. “That’ll be the thing that buys them trust with the average Google user.”
Google has begun moving in that direction. In March, the company launched Account Activity, a service that provides consumers with monthly summaries about their use of Google’s search engine and other services. I learned, for example, that I used Gmail to send 73 e-mails in May, down 23 percent from the previous month, and that I conducted 687 Web searches, up 6 percent. Some of the data is sensitive: I’d be mildly embarrassed to share my top three search terms here.
Alma Whitten, Google’s director of privacy for product and engineering, says Google is thinking of including richer types of data and better visualizations in Account Activity. For example, she says, users might eventually be able to see a graphic showing e-mail usage by time of day, perhaps using it to track work or sleep patterns.
Whitten says the more the company shows users about what it knows, the more comfortable they will be keeping their data in Google’s hands. “Mystery is scary. The unknown is scary,” she says. “When you see the actual concrete things, it is not so scary.”