Google announced this week that it's introducing a feature that makes it easier to remove certain personal information from its servers. For a company that has made it its mission to organize all of the world's information, it's an encouraging sign that Google has started to make it easier for users to control how it uses theirs.
Google has long used data such as a user's location, app activity, and search history to provide more personalized suggestions in search and other services. For example, it can recommend restaurants in the city you are currently visiting, or optimize search results on the basis of your previous inquiries or activity.
Starting soon, users will be able to set that data to be automatically deleted after either three or 18 months, and Google says it will remove it from its servers. Essentially, the search engine that knows everything is making it easier for you to ask it to forget.
Here's why it's a big deal:
It's not a surprise that in an increasingly connected world, it's harder and harder to keep private and personal information, well, private. Most of us don't think about the fact that while we're using services from companies like Google, we're giving them vast amounts of data about who we are, what we like, where we go, whom we are connected to, and what we're interested in.
That data is currently stored and used to provide us with more personalized search results. At the same time, it's used to make money for Google by serving us ads. Even if Google isn't currently directly selling our information to third parties, it still knows more about us than most people would be comfortable with if they knew.
While Google already allowed you to manually delete this information, this automatic option is a far better way to gain control over how long Google has access to your information. It appears Google is finally recognizing that people actually care about what happens to their personal data, and want more say in how it's handled.
While this setting only applies to a limited scope of the information Google collects about you every day, it's a step in the right direction. As companies become more aware of their responsibility to be better stewards of your personal information, there is a movement to be more transparent about how your information is used and to give you better control over your data in general.
Google isn't changing its business model, which means it still wants and needs your personal information, so there's still reason to be cautious. Additionally, when you opt to have your information removed, it will affect the quality of results Google can deliver. Still, this move is encouraging, especially if it's followed by further steps that make it easy to opt out of personal data collection and storage.
Google hasn't announced specific next steps, but hopefully the company will extend this feature to include other services like YouTube. Google needs some access to our personal data for its services to work, but it can do a lot more to construct a better balance between convenience and privacy.
I'd like to see Google make it more clear to users when their personal information is being collected and provide them the opportunity to opt out at that time. I'd also like to see the company implement services that handle your data in a secure form on your device, without Google's needing to store it on its server in the first place. Apple has shown that it can be done with services like ApplePay and Messages. There's no reason Google shouldn't also keep moving in the direction of more privacy.