I like Google. I use there search engine, their browser, and some of their other products on a daily basis. And I like the ‘don’t be evil’ aspiration. I think it’s a good one. So I was pretty disappointed when I found that Google was inserting itself into a document I was working on, without consent, to gain extra information about me.
I was working on a file in Google docs (another Google service I use occasionally), and I saved it to a pdf. When I was checking over it, I noticed that Google was adjusting the hyperlinks I’d inserted; specifically, it was adjusting them so they linked first to a google tracking address, and then redirected to your intended link. There’s a good explanation of it over on this forum; as the original poster comments, ‘It’s not as if a direct link wouldn’t work for some technical reason’. This is purely a way of tracking which links are clicked in a pdf that a user creates from google docs.
There is a work-around, for those that are wondering (also explained in the forum); using the ‘send as attachment’ option, and emailing the file to yourself as a pdf, will save the file without google tracking on any of the links. It’s frustrating to have to go through an extra few links; but personally, I found the unwarranted insertion of tracking much more concerning.
I understand that Google is a free service, for many if not most of their consumer products – that their revenue is almost entirely from advertising. And I know that if you’re using an advertisement based service without paying, then you are effectively the product (for some complications in that discussion, not all of which I agree with, see this article).
But I’ve also thought of Google as a company that I’m willing to trust a little more with my data. In part because I’ve had better experiences using Google products, and had a better sense that Google was serious about communicating with users about privacy. I can live with Google adwords tracking my usage and reading my email, even though it was seen as a big shift at the time. But I liked that Google explicitly talked about evil (specifically, “don’t be evil“).
What I don’t like about this tracking in the pdf is that it’s without any hint to me, the user, that it’s happening. It’s a pdf file that I was sending off to other people; not only is Google then tracking my usage, it’s tracking information about other people using my documents. There’s no consent from me, and no consent from recipients. And if the redirect hadn’t taken a moment to load, and if I hadn’t checked the links, I wouldn’t have had any idea. There’s a lack of notification, and a lack of consent; sure, there are worse things being done by other companies, but this is one thing by Google that’s distinctly on the evil end of the spectrum.
It’s disappointing, and it’s unnecessary.