Google’s Privacy Controls: Confusing Own Employees

Google and privacy have been a major topic over the past few years. Remember this AP story from August 2018 when it was discovered that Google would track and store your location history? And this could happen even after the user had explicitly turned off Location History.

I wrote about something similar back in early 2018. From my post:

Interestingly, while the location history is opt in, Google doesn’t readily disclose that enabling it in one app will allow data from other Google apps to be transmitted to the Google mothership…[O]nce it’s on in one app, it’s on for all of them.

Google’s response to the AP story was to point out how “easy” it is for users to control their data. From their press release:

“There are a number of different ways that Google may use location to improve people’s experience, including: Location History, Web and App Activity, and through device-level Location Services,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement to the AP. “We provide clear descriptions of these tools, and robust controls so people can turn them on or off, and delete their histories at any time.”

(Italics mine)

This discovery led to an investigation by the Arizona Attorney General, and the state sued Google in May 2020.

Some recently un-redacted documents from that lawsuit show how Google’s tools weren’t quite as clear as they claimed.

Confusing User Interface

In fact, they were so poorly-designed that even some Google employees were confused by what different controls did. Some select quotes from the above-mentioned documents:

The current UI feels like it is designed to make things possible, yet difficult enough that people won’t figure it out. (pg 12)

So our messaging around [location tracking] is enough to confuse a privacy focused Google [software engineer]. That’s not good. (pg 13)

I agree with the [AP] article. Location off should mean location off, not except for this case or that case. (pg 17)

Dark Patterns

This design is a good example of a “roach motel” kind of dark pattern. These patterns make it easy to get into a situation but difficult to get out.

Here’s a video that shows a similar type of dark pattern on Amazon:

I don’t know whether Google got itself into this position by intentional deception or bad engineering and UX design, but hopefully Google is able to make their privacy controls much more robust and easy-to-follow.