All That Glitters is Not Sold

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Google just announced an Android app called "Science Journal" that:

allows you to gather data from the world around you. It uses sensors to measure your environment, like light and sound, so you can graph your data, record your experiments, and organize your questions and ideas.

It sounds fantastic, and it uses the data that the phone collects anyway. But, wait, Apple's iOS Health App does that too:

The Health app gives you an easy-to-read dashboard of your health and fitness data. And with HealthKit, developers can make all the incredible health and fitness apps on your device work together, and work harder, for you. It just might be the beginning of a health revolution.

But, this post is not about a pissing match between Google and Apple. Or, is it? For I saw more from Google and Levi's on something called "Project Jacquard"

the company was collaborating with iconic clothing company, Levi’s, to launch a “connected” smart jacket aimed at urban cyclists that will allow wearers to do things like control their music, answer phone calls, access navigation and more, all by tapping and swiping on the jacket’s sleeve.

(I love that they call it Project Jacquard because I once wrote a book on Jacquards), and then I saw this about Google's recently announced messaging app called "Allo":

Through an optional “incognito” mode, Allo encrypts communications in such a way that not even Google can access the contents of the messages you send. Only intended recipients can read correspondence when its end-to-end encrypted. For the majority of people, built-in settings are the ones most often used. That’s why Google’s decision to add end-to-end encryption as an option in Allo — but not enable it by default — is disconcerting to some technologists.

Google is a fantastic company when it comes to engineering the web. It would not be hyperbole to say that we have not seen better programmers, hardware designers, and web services maker able to squeeze out greater speed and utility from the web than Google has. However, all that comes at a cost, and that cost is individual privacy. There are two inherent reasons for that:

  1. For a service to be more useful to me, it has to know more about me

    • For that service to know about me all the time, it has to be on all the time
    • For that service to know about me at all places, it has to be available on the web
  2. For Google to continue to do all this fantastic engineering, they need to make money, and their only significant means of making money is to sell some aspects of information about me to advertisers

So, #2 means Google has all the incentive in the world to continue to want to know about me, and #1 means that all my information that Google knows has to live not on my device but on Google’s servers. All that means that if Google can know about me and do things with that information (let’s assume that is “good” and I want that), Google can be forced to give that information to bad governments, can sell it to potentially bad actors, and can get hacked.

There is a fundamental tension in the computing world right now: You have FB, Twitter and Google on the one side—companies that collect as much information about me and then monetize that information; and you have Apple, and possibly Amazon, on the other. Apple makes expensive shiny things (which, as you all know, I like very much), and beyond that, is not interested in selling information about me to anyone. Possibly, Amazon too is not interested in selling my information to anyone because they themselves can use it to sell me other crap, and selling that information to someone else will weaken their hand.

As they say, “Caveat Emptor.”