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Explained: Privacy washing

Question: Who said the sentence below?

“Privacy is at the heart of everything we do.”

Answer: Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet and its largest subsidiary Google. And if you look at the recent actions Google has announced, you’d be tempted to take his word for it:

But at the same time, Google is under fire because some of its actions seem half-baked. Allegedly Google’s option to “browse privately” is nothing more than a word play.

Let’s be fair. Google makes lots and lots of money by knowing what we are looking for. And to achieve that goal it needs to gather as much information as possible about us. Maybe not specifically about us as a person, but at least about us as a group.

Data are the most coveted currency of our era, and technology giants like Facebook, Google, and Amazon are considered the behemoths of the data gathering industry. If they don’t already, they want to know everything about each and every one of us.

We’re not all equally valued though. Certain milestones in a person’s life prompt major changes in buying patterns, whether that’s becoming a parent, moving home, getting married, buying a car, or going through a divorce. Some of the most personal and secretive troves of data rank as the most expensive.

In a recent blog, privacy company Proton explained how Google is spending millions lobbying and actively fighting against privacy laws that would protect you from online surveillance.

Proton used the expression, “privacy washing” which compares Google’s disparity between actions and words to those of the world’s largest environmental polluters who portray themselves as eco-conscious, known as “green washing.

According to lobbying reports and other records, Alphabet and its subsidiaries have spent more than $125 million on federal lobbying, campaign contributions, and trade associations since 2019.

This is done under the guise that Google wants regulators to let companies decide themselves what’s good for you and for society. But so far, big tech is consistently letting us down in this regard.

A small but telling example was a recent court case where a judge ruled that car manufacturers collecting users’ text messages and call logs did not meet the Washington Privacy Act’s (WPA) standard that a plaintiff must prove that “his or her business, his or her person, or his or her reputation” has been threatened.

In other words they can steal all the data they want unless you can prove that it hurts your business, yourself or your reputation. Does that sound fair to you?

Several US states are going through the process of passing new comprehensive consumer privacy laws, in an attempt to give American citizens more control over their personal data. Privacy advisor IAPP reckons that by 2026, 13 state privacy laws will have taken effect, as newly enacted laws in Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas will join California, Colorado, Connecticut, Utah, and Virginia.

The European Union (EU) is a pioneer when it comes to privacy laws, so it’s easy to see why Big Tech has spent so much money (about $30 million in 2021) lobbying European lawmakers to protect their data gathering practices. Google has been among the most aggressive to water down or slow down the expansion of consumer protections through additional regulations — in particular the Digital Markets Act, Digital Services Act, and ePrivacy Regulation. Google happily bragged about stalling the ePrivacy Regulation, which would crack down on tracking cookies.

It’s common for industries to lobby lawmakers on issues affecting their business. But there is a massive disparity in the state-by-state battle over privacy legislation between well-funded, well-organized tech lobbyists and their opposition of relatively scattered consumer advocates and privacy-minded politicians, The Markup has found.

So, Sundar Pichai, we would like you to put your money where your mouth is. And make some real changes to improve our privacy, rather than engage in privacy washing.

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Pieter Arntz

Malware Intelligence Researcher

Was a Microsoft MVP in consumer security for 12 years running. Can speak four languages. Smells of rich mahogany and leather-bound books.