Google and the Netarchical Construction of the User as a Social Being

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Felix Stalder on Constructing the User as a Social Being

Felix Stalder:

"With the advent of Web 2.0 it became clear that users are not just knowledge-seeking individuals, but also social beings intensely connected to each other online and offline. Google’s services have been expanding and more personalized programs have been added to its portfolio to capture the social persona and its connections.

Signing up for a Google Account allows users to access a wide range of services, most of which are not available “outside” the account. If you choose to edit your profile, basic personal details gleaned by Google from your account are not only the number of logins, your password, and e-mail address, but also your location, real-life first name and last name, nickname, address, additional e-mail address(es), phone number(s), date and place of birth, places you’ve lived in, profession, occupations past and present, a short biography, interests, photos, and custom links to online photo albums, social network profiles, and personal websites.

In addition, Google acquired previously independent sites like YouTube and Blogger, “migrated” their account information, and launched additional social networks like Orkut and Lively, Chat, Calendar, mobile phones and other social services.

On top of monitoring all the contents of communications (e-mails, postings, text messages sent or received), services like Google Groups, Gmail, Google Talk, Friends Connect, or Orkut store any external text, images, photos, videos, and audio files submitted, contact lists, groups a user joins or manages, messages or topics tracked, custom pages users create or edit, and ratings they make. Google servers also record who users network with (Orkut), where, when, and why they meet friends and work contacts, which friends replied to invitations or what these contacts’ e-mail addresses are (Google Calendar), where they do their online shopping and which products they look for (Catalog Search, Product Search, Google Store), which credit cards they use and what their card expiration date(s) and card verification number(s) are, where they buy from, where they want their purchase shipped, how much they bought and at what price, who they bought from, and which type of payment was used (Google Checkout, Google Video). In addition, stock portfolio information, i.e. stocks selected, the amount of a user’s shares, and the date, time, and price at which they were bought, is collected as well (Google Finance).

All of these services transmit information, such as account activity, passwords, login time and frequency, location, size and frequency of data transfers, preferred settings, and all clicks, including UI elements, ads, and links. All this information is subsequently saved and stored in Google’s log files. This monitoring of the users’ social interactions gives Google the means to create ever more personalized data profiles. It is important to note that Google originally denied intentions that it was already connecting or planning to connect information from its various services.16 In 2004, however, the company was forced to make its privacy policy more understandable due to a new Californian law17 and the new wording included a passage stating that Google was allowed to “share the information submitted under [any Google] account among all of [their] services in order to provide [users] with a seamless experience”."


Layer 3: Recreating the User’s Real-Life Embodiment

"For efficient advertising, the process of constructing the user increasingly tries to capture information about the individual as an embodied person and as an agent within a real-life environment. In order to add such data to its burgeoning second index, Google collects such disparate data as its users’ blood type, weight, height, allergies, and immunizations, their complete medical history and records such as lists of doctors appointments, conditions, prescriptions, procedures, and test results (Google Health). Google already knows where its users live (Google Account, Google Checkout, Google Maps default location) and where they want to go (Google Maps), which places they like (annotated maps with photos of and comments about “favorite places” in Google Maps), what their house looks like (Google Maps satellite function, Google Street View), which videos they watch (Google Video, YouTube), what their phone numbers are (Google Checkout), which mobile carrier and which mobile phones they use, and where (Dodgeball, GrandCentral, G1/ Android, MyLocation).

New data-rich sources are accessed through mobile phones, which store their owner’s browsing history and sensitive personal data that identifies them, and combine these with new functions such as location tracking. Android, Google’s new mobile phone platform, offers applications like Google Latitude and MyLocation, which are used to determine a user’s position; MyTracks is used to track users over time. Google will thereby be able to assemble even closer consumer profiles; by targeting users with geo-located ads, Google is creating a virtual gold mine for associated advertisers. This foray into the mobile market enables Google to collect mobile-specific information, which can later be associated with a Google Account or with some other similar account ID. Google Latitude also offers an option to invite a “friends” list to track the inviter. Privacy groups have drawn attention to the problem that user-specific location data can also be accessed by third parties without a user’s knowledge or consent and that the victim may remain unaware of being tracked20, thereby rendering ordinary mobile phones useful tools for personal surveillance.

The development of Android is perhaps the clearest example for the amount of resources Google is willing to invest in order to generate and get access to data for expanding its second index; an entire communication infrastructure is being created that is optimized for gathering data and for delivering personalized services, which are yet another way of gathering more data. Thus, Google systematically collects data to profile people in terms of their knowledge interests, social interaction, and physical embodiment. Outsiders can only observe the mechanism of gathering this data, which allows conclusions about the scope of the second index. What we cannot know is what precisely is being done with it, and even less what might be done with it in the future. What we can assess, though, are some issues arising from the mere existence of this index and the published intentions for its use."


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