25. Google Screenwise: Consenting to Surveillance Capitalism

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Google has further blurred the lines between market research and corporate invasion of privacy with the introduction of Google Opinion Rewards, a survey app for Android and iOS users that allows them to earn “rewards.” In exchange, Google gets access to the phone screens and web browser windows of the app’s users. Rather than fooling regular users into acceding to secretive corporate “research” behind lengthy terms and conditions or hidden app permissions, Google disguises the overseeing function of Opinion Rewards as “metering”—a “funny word for surveillance,” Sydney Li and Jason Kelley of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reported.

The app’s users earn from ten cents to $1.00 per survey, or an estimated $50–100 per year. Dozens of third-party blog posts and YouTube videos targeted at Opinion Rewards users share the best ways to earn quick money in large sums from the program. The questionable ethics behind Opinion Rewards, however, does not lie in the legitimacy of the program’s payments, as users are “rewarded” through the trusted online company PayPal, but in the exchange that Google offers.

Opinion Rewards is segmented into two services, “Surveys App” and “Audience Measurement.” The first is an app, available for download on both the Google Play Store and the App Store, that encourages users to complete surveys ranging “from opinion polls, to hotel reviews, to merchant satisfaction surveys.” The second, more dystopian option requires registered households to install the Screenwise mobile app and web extension which monitors internet usage. Google also encourages, but does not require, the installation of their “TV Meter,” which monitors television usage through a built-in mic and an Opinion Rewards router and further tracks internet usage.

In January 2019, Google disabled the iOS version of the app because it violated Apple’s distribution policies; but Google Opinion Rewards continues to be available to Android users, who have installed it more than ten million times as of July 2019, according to Google Play.

Although it has been widely reported that corporate giants such as Google and Facebook seek to track our every move, listen to our conversations, access our smartphones’ cameras, and even collect our Social Security numbers without our permission, Google’s Opinion Rewards marks a change in corporate surveillance, with responsibility for opting-in shifted onto the surveilled users in exchange for 20-dollar gift cards and other “rewards.”

In February 2019, the New York Times published an editorial that reported on Google and Facebook paying people to download apps that track their phone activity and usage habits, and called for the Federal Trade Commission to “become the privacy watchdog that this era so desperately needs” and urged new laws to “lay down basic guarantees of privacy that won’t require you to wade through hundreds of thousands of words of legalese.” Apart from the Times’s editorial, the corporate media has neglected to cover how Google’s push to “meter” the market contributes to mass surveillance.

Sydney Li and Jason Kelley, “Google Screenwise: An Unwise Trade of All Your Privacy for Cash,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, February 1, 2019, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2019/02/google-screenwise-unwise-trade-all-your-privacy-cash, republished by Common Dreams, February 4, 2019, https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/02/04/google-screenwise-unwise-trade-all-your-privacy-cash.

Dami Lee, “Google Also Monitored iPhone Usage with a Private App,” The Verge, January 30, 2019, https://www.theverge.com/2019/1/30/18204064/apple-google-monitoring-phone-usage-screenwise-meter.

Student Researcher: Fabrice Nozier (Drew University)

Faculty Evaluator: Lisa Lynch (Drew University)