App State’s relationship with Google raises concerns over data privacy

In late January, Google briefly saw its license to internally distribute apps on iOS revoked after Apple discovered it was sharing them with non-employee personnel. The app, called Screenwise Meter, was an opt-in program that monitored how people were using their iPhones and compiled that data in exchange for a nominal gift card each month. The company’s ban lasted less than a day, but it was another brief glimpse into Google’s actual business: the collection and monetization of user data.

When using Google’s collection of apps and programs, it’s easy to think that users are customers, but in reality, it’s more like a consolation prize. The average user isn’t Google’s actual consumer, said Andrew Davis, visiting communication professor.

“We are Google’s product, not their customer,” Davis said. “We are their endpoint user, in some sense, but we are their product and their workforce.”

One thing that allowed Google to break away from its contemporaries in the late 2000s was giving people access to reliable services that looked nice and ran smoothly for no price. For the average user, everything was free. The catch is that Google scrapes data from users’ emails, documents, calendars, locations and more and sells that information to advertisers, who then feed users ads tailored to them personally.

This model was almost unprecedentedly successful for Google, which squashed out its competition and now controls almost 93 percent of web searches across the world. As such, it’s difficult to avoid Google, even if you disagree with its practices regarding data use. For students and faculty at App State, it’s even harder to avoid, considering the UNC System licenses Google Suite for Education for campuses across North Carolina.

Google’s services fall into a legal gray area. Almost no one is comfortable with the company harvesting their personal information, but it’s almost impossible to do anything about it. Google’s terms of service are convoluted to keep users and politicians from decoding and taking action against the company. Legislators don’t know enough to keep Google, or anyone in Silicon Valley, in check.

“Look at Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of congress this past summer,” Davis said. “You have these senators who, through their questions, demonstrate that they have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to this technology. Lawmakers, while possibly being good at what they do, are very bad at understanding technological developments.”

What does this mean for students and faculty at App State? It means they’re most likely being taken advantage of with no real recourse.

“Google does not share personal information with third parties, except in the limited circumstances outlined in our privacy policy,” according to the G Suite for Education privacy policy.

Digging into that privacy policy a bit reveals that Google still allows its partners to parse through App State’s data from its browsers and devices for advertising purposes. Just attending or working at App State eliminates any agency people would have regarding their online privacy. Targeted advertisements and monetized propaganda are a side effect of being at App State.

Google can put users and institutions in uncomfortable situations because of how necessary services like G Suite are, said Larry Bridges, a computer science lecturer at App State.

“These solutions have become pretty important,” Bridges said. “Not only in corporate America or in business, but in education too. We have to do what we have to do to educate, so you really need those services.”

Packages like G Suite allow institutions to unify their online programs, connecting departments, students and staff alike in ways that are incredibly difficult and costly without them.

“It’s kind of like a necessary evil,” Bridges said. “We have to give some of our data and then we rely on being smart people. We have to understand, follow up and see what they’re doing, as well as work through legislature and user communities to try to influence them.”

There’s no easy solution to cutting Google out, but what users can do is look at the company with scrutiny. What little online privacy remains in 2019 is in the hands of users, who can criticize and pressure for change. They can take some time to read through terms of services that they’ve blown by for years. If the terms don’t make sense, some organizations online simplify parts and boil them down for folks to understand. If people don’t understand these companies, they will, without fail, continue to exploit them.