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Trust Us, We're Google!

The company that knows everything about you wants you to feel in control.

Armed with a symbolic pair of red bolt cutters, Brian Fitzpatrick has the job of helping people quit Google.

Fitzpatrick founded and leads a six-person team of Google engineers called the Data Liberation Front, which since 2007 has been developing ways to let users “unlock,” or export, data such as photos, e-mails, and contact lists that they store on Google’s servers. The team’s website offers directions for retrieving data from 33 Google services, including Google Docs and Google Plus, and it created Google Takeout, a speedy link for downloading files from several popular services.

Extracting your data this way can be a first step toward closing a Google account for good. “When you put data into any cloud service, you’re putting trust in [it],” says Fitzpatrick. “You need a way to revoke that trust.”

Despite its subversive name, however, the Data Liberation Front isn’t really encouraging anyone to leave Google. Instead, the project is part of a wider strategy the company is using to give users a greater sense of control. That could go a long way towards quelling consumer privacy worries and avoiding government regulation.

Internet users widely fear that companies will abuse the information they collect about individuals online. Yet paradoxically, few people bother to read privacy agreements, or even set strong passwords, before signing up for online services. Some studies suggest that this is because privacy isn’t what people really pine for. According to a 2010 survey by Fujitsu, 91 percent of consumers want to decide how data collected about them online gets used.

While companies aren’t ready to give consumers control over how data gets sold to advertisers, more are now letting people see the troves of data collected about them. In April, for instance, after reaching an agreement with privacy regulators in Ireland, Facebook expanded the amount of data available to members who choose to download an archive of their account history.

Google’s Data Liberation Front isn’t widely known. It is based in Chicago, far from Google headquarters, and it doesn’t have a marketing budget of its own. Even so, its efforts have taken on a growing role in Google’s public-relations efforts. Google chairman Eric Schmidt cited the data liberation tools during testimony last September before a congressional committee investigating whether Google is a Web monopoly. He told lawmakers that Google makes it easy for users to go elsewhere because “Loyalty, not lock-in” is a pillar of its business philosophy.

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.

The team’s work also was highlighted in Google’s multimillion-dollar “Good to Know” campaign, an effort to teach users about security and privacy that was launched in the United States in January, just before the company announced a new overarching privacy policy. Under the new policy, Google began consolidating more of the data it collects when a given person uses its search engine, Gmail, YouTube, and around 60 other services, allowing the company to personalize users’ experience, and target ads more accurately.

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.”

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