Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Contact At the Expense of Privacy or: How Google Asked Me to Stop Worrying and Ride the Wave

Brian R Zaik

Problem Space: Synchronous connected communications systems (Google Wave)

Value Implicated: Personal privacy

Direct Stakeholders: Current testers of Google Wave preview, future users of Google Wave, Google Inc., non-Google developers of Wave apps

Indirect Stakeholders: Enterprises and other organizations of people, friends, family, and colleagues of Wave users who are not themselves ‘catching the Wave’

Introduction to the Problem Space

On May 27, 2009, Google introduced what they promised would become the next generation of Internet communications – Wave. This technology was introduced as “equal parts conversation and document,” a merging of email, instant messaging, wikis, and social networking (2). It is a synchronous communications system, initially based on the Web, which focuses on strong collaborative and real-time conversation threads built into “Waves.” These Waves are server-hosted XML documents that allow seamless and low-latency concurrent modifications (5). What that means is by default, users will be able to see the current status of all of their Wave contacts – online, offline, or away – and even engage in synchronous conversations on the Web. I will be able to see my friends as they type out messages, make changes, misspell words, add maps and other widgets, and even play Sudoku with me. This is fundamentally different from email, which is based on the chronological ordering of discrete messages or message threads, built largely as a response to the perceived deficiencies of email and other traditional communications media.

As MC Siegler points out in his recent article on Techcrunch, Google wants to turn Wave into a dominant messaging protocol that would be shared between many different contexts (4). That means that Wave may start on the Web, but may grow to encompass a whole host of “connected” desktop widgets, messaging clients, and other programs – all of which would be at least partially based on the concepts behind Wave.

Why Privacy?

In talking about how privacy as a value is implicated by the design philosophies behind Google Wave, it’s appropriate first to define what I mean by privacy. The formal definition within the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines privacy as “the quality or state of being apart from company or observation” (3). This definition also includes the concept of “unauthorized” access. Recent concerns raised with changes to Facebook have sparked debate about how much end-user control must be designed into systems in order to let users tell the system what they consider to be unauthorized access. Thus it becomes the responsibility of the product designers to ensure that user privacy can be both identified within the context of the product and protected.

How Does Google Wave Implicate Privacy?

It is a cloud service that is based on Google’s central servers, rather than individuals’ own machines.

First, there are the overtly high-level issues with allowing companies like Google to have access to all conversation data. The white paper overview of the synchronous technologies behind Google Wave clearly states that the complete thread of multimedia messages (blips) are located on a central server owned by Google (5). This is already the case with IMAP and Web-based email provided by Google (Gmail) and other vendors, yet now Google will have access to not just the messages being generated by users and the interactions of users within the Wave application. Every move in a Sudoku game will be tracked by Google’s servers, as well as every map marker added by users wanting to share geographical points of interest. Google does not plan on retaining this information outside of communicating it in real-time to other users, but the very nature of the data the company is tracking has changed with the advent of the Wave protocol.

It encourages “always-on” communication by eliminating once intentional barriers.

Second, and more important, are the low-level issues that are harder to realize: that in essence, the Wave paradigm encourages such immediate communications that users enter the personal spaces of other contacts with each Wave-based interaction. Users can see when their acquaintances are online, and they can even see when others type. Email was created in part as a response to the telephone and its sense of immediacy; email intentionally erected a barrier to immediate communication by promoting a design that encouraged users to respond to messages at their own schedules (1). It’s almost like users of email are posting to a newsgroup – who knows when people will read it, if at all? Privacy is bolstered by the deliberate or unintentional barriers to synchronous communication within the medium: message delivery failures, slow networks, “I’m away from my computer,” and others.

What we see here with Wave that was never quite the case with existing forms of communication is the removal of most barriers to communication. Google Wave is a technology built to encourage people to be in sync with one another (4). This sounds on the surface to be a magnificent improvement, yet the design of the system must be sensitive to how users are likely to use (and abuse) Waves. The vision of synchronous communication that Wave promotes can become a threat to personal privacy if appropriate safeguards are left out of the overarching design.

My interest in Wave as a communications medium was born on May 27, 2009, when the Google I/O conference talk and demo spread through the tubes to nearly every major news outlet on the Web (2). But only recently has it peaked with the invitation I received from a friend to enter the closed preview for Google’s Web-based Wave tool. I was included in a big Wave with lots of other people, many of whom I do not myself know (and probably didn’t want to know). While this may have happened with mass emails, with emails I would never have been able to see when people are online and when they are typing a message to which I am attached. While I can’t see their other messages in Wave, the implications of a technology like this are somewhat concerning from a privacy standpoint. The software is designed in such a way as to encourage users to open the door to strangers, even on behalf of others. And when someone else opens my door to strangers without my permission, it starts to feel as if they too are in the room when I am communicating within that Wave. If they demand an urgent response from me, there are few ways to mask whether or not I am online or available (or interested) to respond to them. With asynchronous email, this is not the case.

Though Google has promised to give the user an ability to turn off the software’s transmission of letter-by-letter messaging and online status, these changes have not yet been implemented in the software. Even so, Wave’s default behavior will probably force users to opt out of these features. Given that historically the majority of users are unlikely to change default settings, it seems likely that these potential invasions of personal privacy will remain for many Wave users.

It is designed to act as a ubiquitous, context-merging communications protocol.

Why is Google Wave different from instant messaging and wireless email on mobile devices? Instant messaging clients can be turned off or changed to make it seem as though the user is “away” and unable to communicate, but Google Wave is meant to address general communication, rather than casual, friendly conversation or work communications limited to the office. It is, as Techcrunch author Siegler puts it, “not just a service…[but] perhaps the most complete example yet of a desire to shift the way we communicate once again” (4). In the past, class discussions in the Theory & Research in HCI course have focused on how the contexts of work, play, and casual communication could be merged within a single technology and thus create the expectation that a user will always be within reach for communication. It wouldn’t matter if she is located in the office, at home, or on the road, in work mode or up for casual conversation. The paradigm pushed by Google Wave seems to have the strongest chance of becoming this all-encompassing, merged-contexts communications standard. And that, of course, has privacy implications for the end user.

In many cases, users will create different identities and expectations pertaining to how they communicate with others online. A gaming chat account will belong to a different context and thus follow different rules and expectations from work email. Google Wave is built to merge all of these media: to play games together, talk about work issues, brainstorm collaboratively, and connect to each other casually. It remains to be seen exactly how people will use the Wave platform, but this merging of activities could impact the abilities of users to effectively separate purposes between different contexts in the future, thus impacting their personal privacies.

Direct Stakeholders

Current Testers of Google Wave Preview: These are the front-line fighters in the battle to defend user privacy with Google Wave. These people were invited either by Google or other Wave users to join the exclusive, closed test program for Wave. Many of the features that have been promised by Google have not yet been implemented within the preview, and thus it is the responsibility of these users to ensure that Google remains true to its word. In fact, I believe it is necessary for preview testers to vocalize their concerns with how the design of Wave is progressing. There must be active communication between these people and the Google Wave team. Google, in order to create a product that is more responsive to users and the personal privacies they represent, should implement online town hall meetings or actively seek out feedback to ensure that the final version of Wave limits their abilities to limit what is shown to whom (such as live typing). And these stakeholders should also continue to act as stewards for the much larger group of future users, posting analyses such as these and thought-provoking commentaries to blogs and other online communities.

Future Users of Google Wave (employees, casual users): These are the people who will actively use the final release version of Google Wave; they are the ones who will choose to use the communications protocol within their daily lives. These users may belong to organizations or remain individual users, and thus they will be able to decide how often they rely on the Wave paradigm to work together and communicate. Though Google will hopefully offer extensive feedback mechanisms once the full product is rolled out, these stakeholders will not be able to voice their concerns about Wave and its implications on privacy until then, though they most certainly collectively influence the view society will have of Wave when it’s finally out of beta.

Google Inc.: Google is the company behind Wave, as well as the core developers of the first Wave-based applications within the protocol. Google is most certainly a key stakeholder in this problem space, especially since the public image of the company and future profits will both be impacted by how favorably the public receives Wave and the ideas it represents. Google is promoting the philosophical paradigm for communication behind Wave, and developers must ensure that they keep well in mind the desires and interests of users all across the board, from industry, casual communities, and specific contexts (such as gamers or interest-based groups).

Non-Google Developers of Wave Apps: These developers are springing up here and there, and will be the future of Wave as Google envisions it (2). Wave is meant not just as a Google-initiated project, but as a federated protocol for communication in the future. These developers will steer users in ways that may be different from Google’s interests, and they too must carefully pay attention to the privacy ramifications of the new types of interactions they enable between people.

Indirect Stakeholders

Enterprises and Other Organizations of People: Blackberry introduced “email at your hip” years ago, and the iPhone and other “always connected” devices have changed email to become more of a must-have tool than ever before. These devices have had an impact on how much freedom a person has to stay off the grid and outside of the observation of others, but they’re still depending on email with all of its barriers to communication. Google Wave holds the promise to connect people within organizations more effectively than other forms of communication, and it also could set a strong expectation within groups that users must make themselves available to respond at once. Based on how people respond to the philosophies espoused by Google Wave, company culture will be impacted indirectly.

Friends, Family, and Colleagues of Wave Users Who Are Not Themselves ‘Riding the Wave’: The kind of “communication immediacy” that Wave promotes is a paradigm shift that could easily transcend into the rest of society. Despite the fact that email was created to remove the immediacy of phone calls and intentionally erect a barrier, allowing people to respond to communication at their own schedule, Wave seems to embody the worst of what email has become: it will become immediate and demand presence. As we have seen with mobile phones, texting, Twitter, and Facebook, social networking has permeated into most civilized culture, and more traditional interactions such as letter-writing and face-to-face communication have been shortened, quickened, or otherwise diminished as a result of the new types of ways in which people communicate. With this trend, it’s more than likely that the synchronous, collaborative “me-too” communication at the heart of Wave could affect everyone who interacts with Wave users outside of Wave itself.


  1. Cubrilovic, Nik. "Relevance Over Time." Techcrunch. Techcrunch Inc., 12 Oct. 2009. Web. 21 Oct. 2009.

  2. Google Wave Developer Preview at Google I/O. Perf. Lars Rasmussen. YouTube. Google Inc., 28 May 2009. Web. 20 Oct. 2009.

  3. "privacy." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009.
    Merriam-Webster Online. 21 October 2009.

  4. Siegler, MC. "Google Wave And The Dawn Of Passive-Aggressive Communication." Web log post. Techcrunch. Techcrunch Inc., 12 Oct. 2009. Web. 19 Oct. 2009.

  5. Wang, David, and Alex Mah. "Google Wave Operational Transformation." (2009). Google Wave Federation Protocol. Google Inc., 28 May 2009. Web. 21 Oct. 2009.

No comments: