Google says my data is worth $12

Hand holding phone with google.com displayed on the screen

On August 5, 2020, I received an email from Google that began: “You are not being sued.”

Having no recollection of any past misdemeanors, I was understandably alarmed by this cryptic message. But as I read on, I realized that not only was I not being sued, I was, technically, a victim.

“You have received this notice because Google’s records indicated that you may be a Settlement Class Member, and you may be eligible to receive a payment from the Settlement,” the email said. Google went on to inform me that due to various software bugs between 2015 and 2018, the social networking platform Google Plus had inadvertently allowed app developers to access people’s personal information. In response to allegations of people being harmed by this oversight, Google set aside $7.5M to compensate settlement members, pay attorneys, and handle other administrative costs.

As someone whose information had been at risk, I had four possible courses of action, which Google laid out neatly in the email. I could:

  • Submit a Claim Form to Be Eligible for a Cash Payment
    In other words: Google would pay me if I gave up my right to sue them for mishandling my data. The amount? A measly $12.
  • Opt Out of the Settlement
    This is the path for those with enough tenacity to actually square off against a mega billion dollar corporation. If I wanted to sue Google, this would be my only option.
  • File an Objection with the Court
    If I had problems with the settlement, I could object. The email was vague about what I would gain from objecting — would my objection even make a difference? It was clear about one consequence, though: I would give up my right to sue.
  • Do Nothing
    Ah, the path of least resistance. I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant portion of this email’s recipients chose inaction by default.

In just a few short paragraphs, Google had reduced the value of my data to the price of lunch. There was no apology, no consideration for what I could stand to lose, no nothing. Just a business-like email that referred to me as a “user” and treated the whole exchange like a cold, lifeless transaction.

This email, which was doubtless sent to countless others, makes clear the issues in how the modern Internet handles people’s data. Cases like Google Plus are not uncommon — in fact, an estimated 1473 data breaches occurred in the year of 2019 alone, exposing hundreds of millions of people’s information. You likely know a friend or family member who’s had their credit card information or social security number stolen. It happens all the time.

And though we’ve done our best to ward off hackers through privacy laws like the GDPR or CCPA, we’ve only succeeded in weaving a more tangled web, forcing developers to wade through an overwhelming amount of privacy laws. (Our CEO mentioned that at her last company, she took one look at the long list of privacy regulations and almost cried.)

We’ve also turned living, breathing people into deposits of valuable data. Forget that each person is made special by their aspirations and lifestyles and idiosyncrasies. Once they’re entered into a company’s database, they become another figure to input into graphs and equations and monthly reports. We’ve forgotten how to treat people like people.

That’s why when Google tries to make amends by financing my next meal, I think they’re missing the point. It’s not about how much my data’s worth; it’s about respecting the fact that I am a person with a fundamental right to data privacy.

And yes, I recognize that this isn’t all on Google. This data breach is one example out of many, which speaks to the fundamental conundrum of Internet privacy. My belief is that as we continue to improve policy and innovate, we can make the Internet a better, and safer, place for all.

A recent UC Berkeley graduate, Esther Kao has always liked mashing together words and calling it writing. She currently works as a media and marketing specialist at The @ Company, a tech startup committed to transforming how the modern internet treats people’s data. To learn more about The @ Company and their mission, check out their website here.

Now for some internet optimism

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