17 Mar 2020

Open data is on the rise, and it’s up to us to take steps to protect our privacy

With their massive transformative purpose being to organise the world’s information, Google recently launched their dataset search here, bringing together more than 25 million datasets and making them available for free. Reactions to this move have been conflicted: there is growing concern about the impact on individual privacy, contrasted with increasing enthusiasm about the possibilities of open data from a scientific perspective – data is essential in the pursuit of knowledge that can help change the world for the better. Keeping the greater good in mind, let’s take a look at the impact of the Dataset Search service, including some steps that individuals can take to reclaim their privacy.

Search engine to unite the fragmented world of online datasets

This granular search engine indexes nearly 25 million web-based data sets, allowing users to filter searches based on data type, location and terms of usage. Intended to work as a supplementary companion to Google Scholar (the company’s popular search engine for academic studies and reports) Google Dataset Search is a search engine that helps researchers locate online data that is freely available for use. In order to publish their data online, organisations – like government agencies and universities – will need to include metadata tags in their web pages in order to make datasets searchable – describing the data, who created it, publication date, collection mechanisms, and so forth, in order for this information to be indexed by Dataset Search and combined with input from Google’s Knowledge Graph. (What’s that? That’s the name for those boxes that pop up for common searches.)

Initially focused on environmental and social sciences, government data, and datasets from news organisations, the service is expected to expand as the amount of data it indexes will grow exponentially as institutions and scientists join the open data movement to make their information accessible. This highlights the increasing importance of data for scientific literature – researchers know they need data, but they simply didn’t have the means to locate it, until now.  The Dataset Search tool allows users to filter queries to track down text, images or tables, making it possible to determine whether published data is free or for sale and gather information on where data resides – both on desktop or mobile browser.

Why is this a big deal?

In a world obsessed with data, we’ve seen how researchers, developers and scientists across all disciplines have come to live and breathe data.  There are many thousands of data repositories on the web, providing access to millions of datasets; and local and national governments around the world publish their data as well. To enable easy access to this data Dataset Search gives scientists, data journalists and data geeks the tools they need to find the data required for their work and their stories, or simply to satisfy an intellectual thirst for knowledge.

What’s the fuss about individual privacy though?

We already know that Google has been keeping track of our internet searches, as a default. This data is used to build detailed profiles of users, which helps in the pursuit of personalised content recommendations and enables marketers to better target us with ads. Clamping down on privacy in this respect required manual purging of search histories, or browsing incognito. To balance the rise of open data, Google has also developed some strong privacy tools including the introduction of an option that lets users automatically delete data related to Google searches, requests made with its virtual assistant and location history. Further privacy developments include an expansion of the auto-delete ability to YouTube, and a private mode for Google Maps navigation.

Here’s how to take the first step in reclaiming your search privacy: switch on auto-delete for your search history

  • Most of Google’s new privacy controls are in a web tool called My Activity
  • Once you get into the tool and click on Activity Controls, there’s an option for Web & App Activity. Click Manage Activity and then the button under the calendar icon. 
  • Enable automatic clearing of your activity history on several Google products, choosing your personal time frames for Google searches, voice requests made with Google Assistant, destinations searched on Maps and queries in Google’s Play app store.

What sort of time duration should you go for? It depends on how much you care about getting personalised recommendations. Learn more about Google’s privacy measures, here. If there’s no benefit to be gleaned from years and years of your search or location histories, it’s advisable to delete those traces of your digital life. Your personal data is important, and can be used to influence decisions and shape behaviours. It affects reputation and in the wrong hands, data can cause great harm. Take steps to protect yours, because no one else will.

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