Recently it was my birthday (I’m not going to say what date that was, for reasons which will become clear later) and when I did a Google search, I was surprised to find a “Happy Birthday” greeting from Google, complete with an image of candles. I didn’t know how Google knew that, but I was busy at the time, I couldn’t be bothered looking into it and I just wrote it off as one of those “weird web” things.
The issue surfaced again more recently in a more sinister form when I tried to delete an online “profile photo” of myself stored in my Google account. There was nothing particularly sinister about the photo, just a standard head and shoulders shot, but it was out of date and not particularly flattering and I thought “let’s get rid of it then”. I couldn’t. I spent an hour trying to delete that photo when it was the Christmas holidays and I had better things to do. I consider myself a fairly proficient Internet user, but I tried everything I could think of to delete that photo without success. First I tried following all the obvious links to things like “my account”, “my profile”, “update details”, “images” and so on. I right clicked and left clicked on the picture and hit the “delete” button many, many times. I tried to replace it by uploading a neutral landscape photo. It was very easy to upload a new photo, but impossible to delete the one which was already there: I just found that both photos were then stored in my Google account. I tried Googling for “how to delete your Google profile photo” and found some instructions, but when I tried to follow them, they didn’t work.
After an hour of this, it looked as though the only way of permanently getting rid of the photo was to permanently delete my Google and Google plus accounts, which is what I did, ignoring the warnings from Google that I might lose personal data, passwords, apps, photos, videos and other things in the process. I wasn’t too worried about this because I’m old fashioned and store very little data “in the cloud”, preferring to store it on my computer hard drive and backup removable hard drives instead.
Once I had done that I reflected on what had happened. I don’t believe the programmers at Google are stupid, or that the impossibility of deleting that image resulted from careless programming. Those people are probably more intelligent than I am and earn more money than I do. Note the ease with which I could upload, but not remove, images. I think that Google is trying to create a personal profile for everyone on the Internet (that’s where they extracted my date of birth from), and that having an identification photo attached to that profile is so important to Google that they have deliberately made these photos impossible, or at least very difficult, to delete. Unlike your physical address, email address and phone number, which change frequently, your appearance changes only very slowly and your photo is therefore a particularly valuable piece of information to have.
I had to re-read that last paragraph a few times to make sure I wasn’t coming down with a bad case of paranoia, but I don’t think I am. Google has already photographed almost every square inch of the planet with applications like Google Earth, Satellite View and Street View, and for a long time they have been compiling an index to almost every piece of information in the world – the Google search engine. It would make perfect sense, from a corporate strategy point of view, to start building a database of every person in the world, or at least, everyone who uses the Internet.
I looked up Google’s policy on data collection:
It all sounds very bland and reassuring. “We collect data to make these services work for you”, “we store and protect what you create using our services”, “you decide what types of data we collect and use”, “you can permanently delete specific activities or even entire topics that you don’t want associated with your account”. But, as I said at the start of this article, “Ye shall know them by their fruits”. If, in reality, Google makes it almost impossible to delete data, this makes the reassuring words meaningless. Or, if you prefer a quote from Adolf Hitler, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed”.
What Google is doing – building a database in which any citizen of the planet can be recognised from a facial photograph – is very, very dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands, or even if it remains in Google’s hands. It is far in excess of anything envisaged by George Orwell or Stalin. I may have deleted all of my Google accounts, but I’m not naïve enough to imagine that my data and my photo have been deleted: I am sure Google has archived them away in some vast server farm in California. However, there are at least two benefits to deleting my accounts: as the data ages, it will become less useful, and if Google ever uses it, they will have to admit that they cheated by archiving the data instead of deleting it.
Welcome to the brave new world of 2018. Happy New Year.
Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin