Google ditches social platform as data scraping choked

In an Orwellian backtracking, Google has ditched Google+ and tightened access to its users' data for third parties.
11 October 2018

Google Corporation building sign. Source: Shutterstock

Google has taken the opportunity to announce a series of privacy updates affecting a range of its offerings, from apps’ ability to access Android data to preventing companies trawling Gmail users’ accounts for data harvesting.

The move coincides with the company’s announcement that it will be closing its Google+ social platform following the exposure of a bug in the platform’s API. The issue had the potential to expose personal data to third-party applications.

Historically, paramount in concerns about Google’s practices was the knowledge that the company, and its approved third-party partners, could access users’ Gmail accounts.

Business users of G Suite’s Gmail service have never had their data trawled in this manner, and Google stopped mining consumer Gmail accounts for nuggets of info it could use as of June 23 2017, stating in a blog post at the time: “Consumer Gmail content will not be used or scanned for any ads personalization after this change [in practice].”

But many businesses’ currency is data, and they rely on email trawling to glean insights into user activity and behavior, selling information on to interested parties. This most recent tightening of Google’s rules around API access and user privacy means that many businesses will be put under pressure to find new data sources.

Apps which do currently examine Gmail accounts’ contents (or use other conduits into Google services) have until January to resubmit their code and reasons for its use for approval by Google, and any new submissions of apps which intend to use Google APIs will be subject to Google’s changed standards.

Google has updated developers with a statement that says: “Third-party apps accessing these APIs must use the data to provide user-facing features and may not transfer or sell the data for other purposes such as targeting ads, market research, email campaign tracking, and other unrelated purposes.”

In the past, Google justified allowing third parties to access user data by stating that users were always given the option to decline any company’s privacy policy which will have spelled out, albeit in legalese of varying density, exactly how data was to be used.

Of course, not everyone combs through privacy policies to pin down exactly how their information will be used; in fact, perhaps “not everyone” should be read in the sense of “no-one at all.”

Google’s API security lapse which it has used to call time on the Google+ platform has been the coordinating point to start something of a PR drive which hopes to assure its user base that is obeying its (now abandoned) internal edict of not being “evil.”

Companies which rely on data gathering and dissemination will, of course, still have other sources, but the ubiquity of Gmail (which has more than a billion users worldwide) and various other Google services will come as a series of blows to many commercial interests.

As for the closure of Google+, it seems that few will mourn its passing. Ironically, Google’s own defense of its security lapse with regards the API included protestations that few people actually accessed the service – most interactions on the platform lasted less than five seconds, the company admitted.

Google’s previously stout defense of the Google+ platform’s use figures has been forgotten, it seems, raising wry smiles and more than a few raised eyebrows in the Google-watching community.

The company’s volte-face brings to mind a certain incident in George Orwell’s “1984” involving war, or no-war-ever-having-taken-place between Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia.