Last week Google released its very own web browser named Chrome, which it claims runs better than other browsers. But privacy hawks fear it may only out-perform when it comes to collecting personal data. Google's Marissa Mayer says the company has changed procedures in light of concerns.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week marks the tenth anniversary of Google, a two-man start-up that has grown into a 16-billion-dollar behemoth, mostly by selling advertising triggered by search terms.
Google is, of course, now much more than a search engine, offering access to free email, digital libraries, translation, shopping and detailed maps with street-view photographs. It also collects data from you about your interests, your location, your every online keystroke, and thus it has been at the center of concern about online privacy.
When Microsoft unveiled a new version of its Internet Explorer, with greater privacy controls, Google responded with a snazzy new browser of its own, called Chrome, that would leave the flow of personal data unobstructed.
Meanwhile, Google has tried to calm privacy fears by reassuring users that all personal data collected by Chrome would be made anonymous within 24 hours. It also promises that data collected from searches will be made anonymous in 9 months, down from 18 months.
Marissa Mayer is Google’s vice president of Search Products and User Experience, and she joins me now. Marissa, welcome to On the Media. MARISSA MAYER: Hi. BOB GARFIELD: Let's start with why you collect this data. MARISSA MAYER: It helps us learn how to improve search over time. We generate what we call a search log. By keeping a search log, we're able to understand that this user did this search and then clicked on this result.
So, for example, if you did the query on football and clicked on result number four, that tells us something about running the search engine. It tells us that result number four may actually be better than results one, two and three and that we should ultimately raise that result in the overall relevance ranking in the future. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, that makes sense, but I think if you told an average user the extent of what Google collects, they'd just totally freak out. MARISSA MAYER: Yes, you’re giving up some personal information but you’re gaining a lot of functionality, and it’s important to understand what we do collect and what we don't collect.
And the first thing to realize on search logs is that they are not personally identifiable. We don't know who you are, so we don't know your name or your email address or information that would tie these searches to you. All we know is that, you know, a user out there did this search and then clicked on this result. There is a certain amount of personal privacy and protection provided by that alone.
That said, although it’s hard for us, we're reducing the amount of time that we store the logs from 18 months to 9 months, as we've announced this week. BOB GARFIELD: Now, a lot of privacy concerns hinge on kind of nightmare scenarios. One is the government coming to Google and saying, we suspect such-and-such of the following. Please give us every search he has ever done in the past, you know, six years. Can you do that? MARISSA MAYER: We can't, because we don't, again, have personal identifiable information. If they make an inquiry for an IP address, it is possible to find all that, but then again, that only tells us that this computer has done those searches. It doesn't tell us which person has done those searches.
And I should also point out that while we have the search data, Internet providers, they have all of your Internet activity. And so, frequently what we see is for those types of inquiries it’s much more likely that they will go to the ISP or one of those other providers that have the entire Web history from that computer or from that individual. BOB GARFIELD: Is Google resistant to the idea to have a fairly transparent opt-in function for its various products that enable me to give up just exactly as much privacy as I deem responsible? MARISSA MAYER: We've actually gone out of our way to make it clear what information we're retaining. We have a feature called Personalized Search, which actually allows you to see your search history for longer than those nine months. You’re able to sign out and you’re able, also, to delete your account.
On Gmail, obviously, you can see the email that we have from you and how we might be able to use that. So generally, you get to see all of the information that we have that we're using to personalize or customize the service to you. BOB GARFIELD: I mean, that may be transparent but it’s not particularly intuitive. It requires me to go looking to kind of turn on and turn off switches. Shouldn't there be a privacy meter that everybody could adjust individually, according to his own wishes? MARISSA MAYER: I think that’s something interesting to consider. And certainly at Google we really value simplicity, so there is something really compelling and interesting with the idea of just having a simple sliding meter.
But sometimes in having that ultimate simplicity of just a slider, details get missed and they get misunderstood. I think it would actually be a really big step back from where we are today if people just understood that their meter was on high or low but didn't understand what that really meant in terms of data retention. BOB GARFIELD: But that might be a decision left to the individual, as opposed to the corporation, no? MARISSA MAYER: Well, I think that it’s different. If we give people a tool that oversimplifies and leads to misunderstanding, that might make them to make misinformed or under-informed decisions, that is ultimately something that we're responsible for. BOB GARFIELD: Does Google believe, institutionally, that all the discussion of privacy concerns is actually stifling innovation of your algorithm and other technological development, or do you kind of get why it’s important to all of us? MARISSA MAYER: Oh, we absolutely understand why privacy is important to us. That’s why we think about it as much as we do. And while it’s been very challenging, for example, this week, to make the announcement that we retain the logs for only nine months, that’s the product of several years of some of the world’s best thinkers thinking about the data that we have and whether or not that data and our ability to improve the service would be really compromised by taking it from eighteen months to nine months.
And the answer is it will be compromised, but we're willing to make that compromise because we understand that the privacy concerns are, in fact, so fundamental to our users. We want to build trust with our users. We want them to feel comfortable with the personal and private information that we have.
That said, we need to continue to work and adapt to change our practices, change our algorithms on our side to make sure that we retain our ability to continue to deliver a great search and to continue to evolve in the face of more and more information being online. BOB GARFIELD: Marissa, thank you very much. MARISSA MAYER: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Marissa Mayer is Google’s vice-president of Search Products and User Experience.