Big tech doesn’t care about your data: It’s just "privacy washing"!

As people around the world become more aware of the importance of protecting their data & privacy, big tech corporations like Google and Apple adapt to appear privacy focused; welcome to "privacy washing"!

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Over the past decade, users have become increasingly glued to their screens, trying out the latest social media platforms, sharing, uploading, and communicating online. But, as we have become reliant on the web and mass consumers of online media, big tech companies like Meta and Google have made their fortunes through our data.

In recent years there have been numerous big tech scandals and data breaches, and slowly people around the world have realized that their personal data is not as safe as big tech companies want us to believe. With the increasing need for online privacy and data protection, companies like Google and Microsoft have become master manipulators and experts at privacy washing.

Privacy washing has become a popular marketing strategy with the growing demand for better data protection and privacy. This was a given from the start because as usual, companies have to adapt their marketing tactics to stay relevant and pose as giving the people what they want!

But what is privacy washing? This marketing tactic is commonly used by big-tech companies who want to appear to take data privacy seriously, but in reality don’t truly protect ones data or respect user privacy as much as they say. Companies like Google and Apple have perfected their marketing strategy to appear as privacy focused and putting the users first, but many a time it has been exposed that these are merely marketing tactics and they are still (if not more) greedy for your data and putting profits first.

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Respecting user privacy and data isn't profitable

Like oil and gas companies are often called out for "greenwashing", the same is true for big tech companies with privacy washing. Unfortunately today, companies like Facebook and Google pose as privacy defenders, but continue to make their profits from the ad-based business model by tracking, and collecting as much user data as possible and selling it to advertising companies who then target you with ads.

Facebook and Google are both ‘free’ to use, well that’s what they’ve convinced billions of users around the world at least. But how can Facebook and Google services be free? They aren’t! These tech giants make huge profits off you – the product.

Google’s 2023 earnings report, shows that their top revenue source in 2023 came from ads. In 2023, $237.86 billion of the total $307.39 billion was generated through ads. It’s clear that Alphabet’s Google makes its billions through advertising; collecting, tracking, and selling your data. So why would they stop this? Well, they won’t, but they will excessively push their privacy washing campaigns.

And as we all know Google, tracks just about everything we do online, it collects our locations, scans our emails and even creates extremely accurate user profiles about us to target us with advertisements about things we are more likely to buy. Every time we use a Google product, our data is being collected and the data hungry machine learns more and more about us. The more we use Google, the more it learns and profits from us.

A prime example of privacy washing is Google’s Sundar Pichai’s opinion piece in The New York Times where he writes a very emotional, heartfelt story giving examples of how Google’s products are changing to give users more options and even goes as far to say,

‘Our mission compels us to take the same approach to privacy. For us, that means privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services. Privacy must be equally available to everyone in the world.

In the case of Google, privacy is not given or equally available to everyone in the world – and as long as they make their revenue off advertising, privacy and data protection is not possible when using its products. For many people, who aren’t aware of what Google really does, reading such an opinion piece would give the impression that Google really cares and is doing its part to help protect user data – this is only backed up more by the fact that it appeared in The New York Times.

"Privacy washing" is everywhere

Google’s Privacy Controls

In a previous article, we did a deep dive on everything Google knows about you and if you’ve read it, you will know that they collect and track you as much as possible. We can’t deny that Google has easy-to-use productivity tools and apps, but the sad truth is that if you want to use them there’s a catch. You can download them, and start using them instantly without paying any money – instead you pay with your data and give up your privacy.

So by using their products, you essentially allow them to track and collect your data. But of course Google would never let you know this, or outright tell you the facts – instead, they’ve created a ‘safety center’ where you can find ‘Privacy controls’. This is a dedicated page which shows you how they let you change your privacy settings to your liking. The problem with this is that if you do not change and review Google’s privacy and security settings the tech giant literally tracks and collects as much of your data as possible – and as we know, for instance from the example when Apple had to give people a choice to switch the default browser on iPhones due to the European DMA, most people do not change their default settings.

Google’s Privacy tools

Google’s Privacy Tools are the perfect example of privacy washing.

Many studies have shown that most people are lazy and don’t change their default settings. A study conducted by Microsoft’s Research Team looked at how many Word users changed their settings and as found out, more than 95% of Microsoft users had not changed any settings. This shows how Microsoft in this case could choose the default settings, and majority of the users wouldn’t touch them, the same is true for many other companies.

So regarding Google’s privacy settings, sure they let you opt out of letting them collect every single YouTube video you’ve ever watched or let you turn off ad personalization, but this doesn’t really mean much when first almost nobody does that and second Google can still collect some data and target you with ads, just a little less as they did before you wisely changed your default settings. This doesn’t sound like true privacy, but for the average internet user Google’s privacy washing tactics and giving the impression that the user is in full control sounds very good – at least enough for them to believe the company is respecting their privacy.

Speaking of privacy washing, Google’s Incognito Mode lawsuit is a prime example. Billions of Google Chrome users around the world were under the impression that when they surfed the web using Incognito Mode they were browsing with true privacy. Sadly this was not true, no browsing activity was saved to the device but Google was still tracking its users and their data was being saved in the background. In 2020, Google users filed a lawsuit against Google, resulting in the big tech agreeing to delete or de-identify $5 billion worth of users’ browsing records that were collected over the years. This again highlights Google’s privacy illusion, and how they do not respect user privacy.

Meta’s Threads app is its new data vacuum

Threads data linked to you. Source: Apple App Store

Meta owned Threads is the Big tech’s latest social media app that collects unjustified amounts of personal user data like your sexual orientation, political opinions, and ethnicity among a lot more.

Threads, one of Meta’s latest social media apps is another app that collects as much user data as possible. Within days of release, the Threads app had already reached 100 million users which raised major concerns among privacy experts because like with other social media users, very few Threads users know about the huge amounts of information the new trendy social site collects. The release of the new app was even put on pause in the EU due to concerns about it not adhering to strict European data privacy regulations.

Meta already owned Facebook and Instagram, two sites known to collect mounds of user information and then it brought out Threads. But what raised concern with Threads is the types of data it collects from its users, for reasons unexplained. Some concerning info it collects includes your ethnicity, sexual orientation biometric data and even political opinions which is supposedly justified for ‘product personalization’ reasons. After coming under scrutiny in the EU and facing many scandals over mishandling user data, one would think big-tech Meta would try to make privacy focused changes, but with the release of Threads, it shows otherwise.

If you’re still wondering if your privacy is respected when you use Facebook, Threads or another Meta platform, we can easily say that after numerous scandals and convincing privacy washing campaigns, it can’t and shouldn’t be trusted.

Apple does privacy washing too

It would be unfair not to mention that even reputable Apple is guilty of privacy washing. Apple was quick to realize that their competitors were in the past not focusing on privacy even though people were starting to grow increasingly aware of the importance of online privacy – and of course, made privacy a major keyword in their marketing campaigns.

Privacy, That’s Apple. Image source: Apple

While Apple does offer some good privacy features, it’s another company that has perfected its privacy washing campaigns.

Besides in Europe, Apple only lets you download apps through their dedicated Apple app store rather than allowing app sideloading. Their reason for this in the past was said to be for security, this was until Apple’s CEO Tim Cook gave a talk at the IAPP conference and placed emphasis on privacy as the reason app sideloading is bad on iOS devices. There are more cases that highlight Apple’s privacy washing campaigns, but what we can learn from this one is that Apple very quickly changes their use of wording from security to privacy or use the terms interchangeably to highlight their dedication to protecting users. In reality it’s clear, however, that Apple does not allow iOS sideloading because they want full control and market dominance. Allowing users to download apps from alternative stores wouldn’t benefit them, it would lower their profits and control.

By now, Apple has been forced to allow app sideloading on iOS devices within the EU due to the Digital Markets Act (DMA). But when forced to allowing iOS sideloading in the EU, Apple has found ways to make it quite impossible for app developers, for instance by implementing expensive fees for independent software developers - an example of malicious compliance.

What we learn from privacy washing

There are a lot more privacy washing cases we could mention, but for the purpose of this article we’ve highlighted a few popular examples.

What we learn from today’s privacy washing tactics is that what companies say and do is often not aligned.

The power of marketing, especially online has no limits. For the average internet user Google’s privacy campaigns are very selling, but what the tech giant says and does are often different which poses great threat to user privacy.

With that being said, the internet is not doomed and you can make active changes to protect yourself online and take back your data. There are still privacy focused companies, like Tuta who are fighting to make the web a better place and bring back online privacy.

For more privacy focused resources be sure to check out our privacy guides for expert privacy tips, resources on simple changes you can make to protect yourself online, and guides to the best privacy focused companies who won’t pull the wool over your eyes with convincing privacy washing campaigns.

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