Gripes persist regarding Google’s data collection

10:00 | 12/06/2020
The lack of a comprehensive legal framework to protect online users’ privacy is putting their personal information at risk and causing public concern, further fuelled by the latest lawsuit against Google for illegally invading the privacy of millions of its users.
1495p13 gripes persist regarding googles data collection
Google processes around 3.5 billion searches each day, equalling 1.2 trillion per year globally Photo: Le Toan

Google is facing a lawsuit accusing the tech giant of invading people’s privacy and tracking their internet usage even when the browser is set to incognito or another private web browsing mode.

By compiling user data via Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager, and other applications through smartphone apps and website plugins, the search engine learns thoroughly about users’ friends, hobbies, favourite food, shopping habits, and even the “most intimate or embarrassing things” they search online, according to Reuters.

Google allegedly collected personal data from users in the United States and other markets, including Vietnam, despite them thinking it was safe to surf in private mode. However, in contrast to many other countries, Vietnam is currently lacking a legal framework to protect people from this type of privacy invasion in the digital environment.

Personal data has become a valuable currency in the 21st century, often more so than actual products. By gathering people’s personal data, even if partially anonymised, tech companies like Google and Facebook are able to then sell this data to advertisers looking for specific target groups for their marketing campaigns.

In addition to so-called black hat hackers who use their skills for their own gain, the massive collection of data by search engines and social networks has put people’s personal information at immense risk. In addition, without a comprehensive legal framework and personal protection measures, users are often left alone and leave their traces online without even recognising it.

At present, Vietnam lacks such a framework. Accordingly, no regulations currently stipulate how much information tech platforms are allowed to gather from their users.

“Once people leave their information online or use online services, their data can be anywhere. However, full security for protecting one’s personal data is nearly impossible,” said Vo Do Thang, director of Athena Group specialising in cybersecurity.

Thang also said that filing in a lawsuit against Google in Vietnam seems to be far from efficiency because even with new rules in place, it would be hard forcing the giant to adjust its main business model.

Since February, the Ministry of Public Security has been collecting recommendations for a new regulation outlining protecting users’ data in Vietnam. The regulation is planned to include several new sanctions for violations as administrative fines for stealing user data is currently set at around VND50-70 million ($2,150-3,000) – too small to threaten tech giants like Facebook and Google.

As long as such a regulation is still in the making, users could sort out ways to protect their data from security risks by themselves. Thang from Athena said that people should reduce uploading any personal information such as phone numbers, ID numbers, or passports to social networks.

Regarding the data that is generated and used at people’s workplaces, David Emm, security researcher at Kaspersky, said that once staff members enter any wireless network, the risk of the firms’ data being leaked is increased significantly. Therefore, organisations and companies should enhance their security networks before any criminals’ attacks or if they are worried that large tech companies gather important information. “Businesses can help protect their data and that of their employees by ensuring anyone who connects to a network uses a VPN service (a virtual private network that allows users to access data across shared networks). They can also make sure the office and all endpoints are secure, patched, and up-to-date with cybersecurity programmes, and that the systems will only run authorised applications,” Emm added.

Online user data is one of the major income sources of large tech platforms. In other words, it has been a goldmine for most tech firms, resulting in an unresolved dispute about how to balance the privacy of users with the benefits for companies whose business model often relies on gathering users’ data.

Thang from Athena said that tech behemoths have a great demand in gathering information of users and utilising them for business purposes. “Facebook and Google poured tremendous capital into developing their platforms and allowing people to use it for free,” he added.

By collecting the personal data of users, such as location, age, and search interests, among many other pieces of information, Google and similar platforms can easily offer the right advertisements to them, which is why they have been flourishing dramatically in the past 10-20 years. Similarly, the global social network Facebook, along with other social networks, has been taking advantage of its users’ data to earn advertising revenue.

Google last year earned nearly $162 billion in revenues, while Facebook also recorded $71 billion, according to market research firm Statista. Nevertheless, these tech titans regularly ignore their tax obligations in many nations, including in Vietnam.

According to US-based Vice Media LLC in 2018, a company specialised in digital media, Facebook can easily tell users’ political orientations and hobbies by analysing an average of just 68 likes per user. Similarly, a mere 150 likes are enough for the social networking site to understand its users’ personality better than their parents.

By Van Anh

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