Your data is important to us

Damn right it is, but do you realise how important it really is?

We’ve grown accustomed to getting our services for free. From email to streaming music, from movies to books, from blogs to video-calls, we live in the world where someone is willing to offer that service we’ve been searching for totally without cost.

Or is it?

Recently I signed up for a Gmail account. I’m a big fan of Google, it’s a great search engine. I also like their maps. Streetview is pretty cool, and so are their web analytics solutions (so I can track who is reading this right now)! I’ve managed to use Google for 15 years though without ever signing up for an email account with them. Why is that? Well, I’m very suspicious of anything that’s given away for free.

My application was however denied. The computer said no. Why was that, you might wonder? Well, I wasn’t willing to give up my personal information – and that’s the key condition of use. Here’s the screenshot if you don’t believe me:

Image ownership, Google. Data ownership, me. Image ownership, Google. Data ownership, me.

Now, most people simply fill in this form without thinking. Why? Well, we’re used to it. Being presented with forms asking for our personal information has become such a familiar instance to us that we complete them sub-consciously.

But have you ever stopped to wonder why this information has been requested? Or what would happen if you refused? What alternatives do you have to use services such as Gmail anonymously? None.

I decided to delve a little deeper and see exactly why Google asks for this information on their Privacy Policy:

“We ask for some personal information… to… make sure you have a great experience…”

Really? Google knowing my gender and date of birth… how will that impact how good an experience I have of their email system?

Further into the small print, they explain why they need my date of birth:

“Your date of birth helps us provide you with things like age-appropriate settings. We won’t display it without your permission”.

Wrong. Google ask for your date of birth, so they can help identify you. A quick search on Facebook reveals there are 9 members called ‘Charles Radclyffe’. Even assuming none are duplicates and all are alive, I bet none of them share a date of birth (or even perhaps birth year) with me. With three drop down boxes, Google have narrowed the search from 9 to 1. If age-appropriate material was really their objective, why not simply make providing a date of birth an optional field and a tick box to verify that I’m over 18 or 21?

The explanation of why they need to categorise my gender is even more mystifying:

“We will use your gender for things like improving our messages”

Again, I don’t understand how knowing my XY chromosome combination is going to help them provide a better email service? What’s also odd about Google’s approach is how it leaves them likely to end up with messy data. The choices provided are “Male”, “Female”, and “Other”. Without getting into a debate as to the extent gender is a continuum as opposed to a categorisation, it’s clear that there is a big difference between someone who classifies themselves as “Other” to someone who would rather not say. Why not provide that choice?

Google are not alone in falling into these traps – in fact, most of us are so used to filling in these forms that when we’re designing them for the organisations we work for we perpetuate the problem. So what can you do?

  1. If you need to create a form to collect someone’s data, only ask for the minimum you need. The more you ask for, the greater the drop-off will be anyway – so unless you really need rich-data – don’t bother.
  2. If you’re signing up for a free service such as Gmail – just keep in mind that it’s only free because the data you are providing (explicitly through forms, and implicitly through your behaviour on their sites or in their applications) is in some way valuable to them. There is nothing you can do about it – just be aware.

I look forward to the day when you can sign up anonymously for services such as Gmail. I’d even be willing to pay – until then, I’ll just have to continue to manage my own email server!

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