Alexa: please don’t send Google my blood type

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November 8, 2019

In today’s world, it often feels like our social media knows more about us than we know about ourselves. Just Google It (HWL 60A) is a class designed to inform students about the lesser known things about the digital world most people live in. According to the syllabus, the course explores various topics that are related to Google data collection, the impact of that data on American society, the ethics involved and recent related controversies.

Google has access to our entire lives, from what we like to eat to our interests. However, most people do not know a lot about Google Data or how it works. Google creates an entire profile on every user, and since it is connected to most other online activities, the profiles end up very detailed and include one’s personal data. 

Many unknowing Googlers believe that a simple search will lead to an unfiltered list of web pages that is the same for every user. However, this is rarely the case. According to Esther Brandon, a digital literacy specialist at the Brandeis Library, most people are not aware that there are biases included in Google algorithms, which influences how Google works with a particular individual. There are other outside factors that influence what one sees in their search results.

Google is not only a search engine; it is designed to tailor itself to every specific user, including the tailoring of advertisements. This means that everything a person has searched for in the past as well as other factors influence an individual’s search results. Google “shows you what it thinks you want to see,” said Brandon in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot, which as a result reinforces one’s current biases. Frighteningly, these biases can range from simple opinions to political ideology to even racism and sexism. Additionally, the few studies done have found that Google algorithms themselves include both racial and sexual biases.

“This is a large problem with not a lot of scholarship about it,” continued Brandon. She hopes to raise awareness on these issues, starting with Brandeis students. “It impacts all of us and not a lot of people talk about this,” added Brandon.

During class, Brandon hopes to create dialogue, where students are thinking about and analyzing the various questions that come up with the acquisition of all of this information, as well as its implications. There is typically a short 10 to 15 minute lecture at the beginning of class, followed by a heavy discussion section where students share their thoughts on the subject matter. Brandon also incorporates a workshop section into class periods, where students have a chance to do some hands-on activities, such as analyzing their own personal data. From there, students can alter their Google accounts so that less data is collected from them online. 

Brandon stresses that Google’s data collection is not an individual issue but a societal issue. Education and literacy in these topics is essential in protecting personal data from not just Google but from other large media corporations.

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