As companies continue to use customer data to innovate, they need to be upfront and transparent about how that data is being used.
Caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware,” is a Latin phrase stating customers must heed all potential dangers of their purchases. It has been getting its purest test since it was codified into British common law in 1603, not because of a revival of 17th century artisanal guilds, but through the frequently frustrating world of fine print now being brought into the digital age.
The most recent tech scandal, the revelation that Google’s user tracking went further than most users thought, is being interpreted by the company as a misunderstanding, a failure of most users to go deeper to learn about what’s truly being tracked when they use apps like Google maps or access the latest weather updates. While most smartphone owners are aware they’re able to turn GPS tracking on or off, location tracking was still taking place even after the setting was changed on both Android and iOS devices. Google searches, checking traffic conditions and even simply opening Google’s Maps app all took note of users’ location data, storing this information even after, as Google’s support page stated, “the places you go are no longer stored.”
Google’s defense? The true nature of their location tracking was indeed stated clearly...in the fine print. After GPS tracking was turned off, an easily skippable message read, “Some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other Google services, like Search and Maps.” Of course, “may be saved” is a nice bit of verbal fence-riding. When it comes to a data-hungry entity like Google, you can be certain that whatever info they can hold on to, they will.
Many users rightfully felt they had been misled by the more visible language which seemed to be stating that all tracking was disabled, while more accurate detail was available only by stopping to read a new block of text. Perhaps thanks to the media attention and a newly filed class action lawsuit, the Google help page’s language has since been updated to more clearly reflect the fact that tracking continues even when location tracking has been turned off by the user.
“Let the buyer beware” has worked as a traditional credo for generations of peddlers and salespeople, but whoever coined that phrase wasn’t selling products capable of upending all notions about personal space and the right to be left alone. There’s a false dichotomy that gets presented in arguments about this issue -- that users of such technology need to get used to the idea that they give up personal rights when they buy a smartphone or log onto a social network. Multiple scandals from earlier this year show that the rejection of this false choice is growing in prominence into a worldwide governmental movement.
Sweeping reforms were already enacted in the European Union to limit the extent to which internet companies can access sensitive data, and earlier this summer Congress reached out to Apple and Google parent company Alphabet to inquire about their own data practices. Could this be the beginning of a major shift in control of the most treasured asset of the information age, the very information that gives this era it’s name?
We’ve already seen Facebook’s reputation take a major hit in concert with privacy concerns and a lack of trust from users. Perhaps it’s become unrealistic to think that Google’s omnipresence will continue for good, especially if enough users feel their rights are being unfairly infringed upon. Hiding behind the fine print can only do so much good. The vast majority of users don't read it, and the concept of keeping vital and relevant information in endless terms and conditions is treated like a joke. The equivocal “may be saved” language in Google’s old user warning is likely not a strong enough caution for the average person -- especially for a user base accustomed to casual, everyday use that doesn’t include meticulously parsing every block of text that pops up while they go about their phone-filled day.
In today’s environment where customer dissatisfaction has a quicker and more wide-reaching impact than ever before in history, even seemingly untouchable giants like Google would do well to be a bit more transparent. No company is invincible, and failing to take customer concerns seriously carries the danger of seriously damaging the good name they’ve spent the last couple decades building up. After all, the era-defining Latin language that gave us caveat emptor didn’t last forever, either.