A one-stop control centre: Google Account
Stephan Micklitz and Jan Hannemann have spent years developing tools that allow users to decide what data they’re happy to share with Google – and what they’d rather keep to themselves
When Stephan Micklitz tells people he works for Google, he often gets the question 'why do you need so much data?'. His answer: 'Data can make Google products more helpful to you – like delivering your search results in the correct language, or recommending the quickest route home. But I always point out that you can choose how Google stores your data and whether we use it to tailor our products for you. People usually want to see that for themselves before they believe me'!
'We wanted to personalise the service and make the layout clearer'.
Micklitz has worked at Google since 2007. He was one of the first staff members in Munich and quickly took a leading role on topics relating to online security and data privacy. Since 2010, Micklitz has led the global development of several critical Google products for enhancing online security and privacy. He believes it was a smart move on Google’s part to base this department’s headquarters in Germany back in 2008. 'Google wanted to be where privacy was being discussed most intensively', recalls Micklitz.
Since then, a lot has happened. Most importantly, on 25 May 2018, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force. The GDPR regulates the use and storage of personal data. Micklitz remembers the moment in 2016 when he and his colleagues first read through the wording of the law. 'It was clear that many of the controls and tools that we’d built were already well aligned with the GDPR -- but also that we still had work to do', he recalls. Now, he walks me to the conference room where he meets his colleague Jan Hannemann.
Google launched its first data privacy tool, Google Dashboard, back in 2009. Micklitz and his teams were responsible for its development. Over the years, additional functions have been added. Starting in 2013, users have been able to manage their Google digital legacy with the Inactive Account Manager; in 2014, the Security Check-Up was added, followed by the Privacy Check-Up in 2015. These new tools walk users through their data privacy and security settings step by step.
In 2015, My Account was launched, which brought together all Google services. For the first time, users had a one-stop control centre that allowed them to see which of their personal data Google was saving, make their own decisions on which information they wanted to delete, and switch off functions that save data and track online activity. Users could also opt out of personalised ads. My Account has been continually expanded and improved from the moment of its launch.
'It’s important to us that each user can choose what information Google is allowed to keep'.
In June 2018, the service was revamped, and My Account became Google Account. Along with Stephan Micklitz, Product Manager Jan Hannemann was responsible for the relaunch. Hannemann holds a PhD in computer science and has worked at Google’s Munich office since 2013. He helped develop My Account and is responsible for Google Account to this day. His colleagues have even given him the nickname 'Mr. Google Account'.
Hannemann explains Google Account’s new design using his smartphone. 'We wanted to personalise the service and make the layout clearer – particularly for use on mobile devices with smaller screens'. Stephan Micklitz picks up his own smartphone and opens the application. 'When I run the service, the software offers me the option of performing a Security Check-Up, for example', he explains. 'Here I can see immediately whether Google has any suggestions for how I can improve the security of my Google Account'.
Micklitz and Hannemann base much of their product development work on Google surveys into how people around the world use individual services and what their general attitudes are. 'Europeans – Germans in particular – are often more sceptical when it comes to the use of their personal data than Americans are', says Hannemann. 'That has to do with our history, of course'. Not all users are opposed to having their data stored. 'Some people find it very practical when their smartphone reminds them it’s time to head to the airport', says Hannemann. 'Other people appreciate the auto-complete feature, which allows the search engine to predict the remainder of a search term. These features and many others are only possible when people allow us to use their data to tailor our products for them'.
When it comes to privacy, notes Stephan Micklitz, there can never be a single, uniform solution. That’s partly due to the fact that everyone is an individual, and users’ needs change over time. 'It’s important to us that each user can choose what information Google is allowed to keep. We’re continually honing our tools to make that possible'.
Photographs: Conny Mirbach