Drowning in unreadable data

By Sophia Rainey, Opinions Editor

Google has never been one to hide new features, so it surprised me when I found out about one I had never heard of. Instead of learning about the feature through the company itself, I found out through social media. It seemed odd that something so potentially major did not get a press release. 

When I heard you could download your own data I assumed this was a recent addition. However, this feature dates back at least a year. Google has seemingly never drawn major attention to this tool.

Google has famously been a secretive company, but as it has risen to its current prominence, that secrecy has been called into question. It, like many major technology companies, had been tight-lipped about what data is collected and kept. 

Initially, I was afraid of downloading what they had collected because I felt that by downloading it, I would be somehow validating Google for collecting this information. I decided to push forward because I could not try to stop Google from storing massive amounts of my data if I had no idea what they had collected. 

Despite being unhappy that Google was collecting my data in the first place, I felt like the feature was a step in the right direction for transparency. The first thing I discovered when I tried to download my information was that you have to wait anywhere from several hours to several days before you can access it. 

The user then has to download the files onto a computer. By taking these steps, Google makes it difficult for anyone who does not own a computer to access. This discourages a large number of people from downloading their data.

After several days I was finally able to download the files, which came as a collection of folders. Every subset of Google had its own folder, even websites I had no memory of using. As I looked through the folders, I realized how little of my data I could actually understand.

The vast majority of the data Google let me download about myself was written in the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) data format. Although this feature was theoretically supposed to make Google’s systems feel more accessible, most internet users do not understand code. I wanted to understand what Google knew about me, but I soon recognized that they were not making it easy for me to do so.

If Google was actually interested in making itself more transparent to the average consumer, the data it provided would be written in a language most of its consumers can actually understand.

As I was going through the files I could understand, I realized that most of the time when I use the internet, I am not signed into my Google account. Most of the information was from when I was between six and ten years old. 

Reading through the files made me realize that it probably is not necessary to store all of someone’s data. Ten-year-old me left many, many, comments on a Sims let’s play about a name for a virtual baby. For the record, the YouTuber did not choose the name I suggested, but his loss I guess.

If ten-year-old me could not even influence the path of a let’s play, I severely doubt that what I was saying was profound enough to merit storing. To me, there is something incredibly unethical about storing a minor’s information. Sure, storing my data was relatively harmless but storing a minor’s information could be dangerous if that person had to keep something secret, like their sexuality from an unaccepting household. 

While this feature seems to be making the rounds as something promoting transparency, it feels like Google is doing the opposite. At the end of the day, if Google really wants to promote transparency with its users it needs to provide more than just an unreadable data dump.