Google Doesn't Know My Dad Died

Tech companies haven’t figured out how to automate human relationships.

Louise Matsakis

Louise Matsakis

Image: Screenshot/Google

On Friday, Google Photos sent me a push notification, asking whether I'd like to make a video clip of memories for my dad. The perfectly timed message came two days before Father's Day, which is this Sunday. In theory, it's thoughtful of Google to make sure that I don't forget the holiday, but my dad died more than a decade ago.

Much of Google's business is built around what it can learn about its users. The company commands more than 60 percent the world's search advertising market and makes money by serving ads based on what it knows about you.

But as Google begins to try and bring automation to our personal relationships, it's becoming clear just how little it really understands about our lives. Google Photos can leverage its powerful neural networks to organize my photos based on people's faces, but it's just not smart enough to know that none of them belong to my dad.

If Google analyzed all my text messages and emails, it could easily gather that I'm not the best candidate for a Father's Day push notification. That naturally leads to a broader question: does the notification upset me enough that I'd exchange my privacy for the guarantee that I never receive something like it again?

I'm not sure. Is it more dangerous for Google to know everything about me, or for it to have an incomplete understanding that leads to incorrect assumptions?

As we begin inviting technology to listen to us while we hang out at home, or to judge our outfits in our bedrooms, it's interesting to wonder what kind of picture tech companies will have of us. Google, ostensibly, has painted one in which my dad is still alive.

Google's notification was basically harmless, but it's not the only instance in which a tech company sent an offputting message to users, or revealed it knew more than expected.

Last year, Google's personal assistant, Google Now, eerily offered its sympathies to a user after a death in his family. In 2014, Office Depot revealed it had collected data on how a man's child passed away.

In 2012, Target's automated coupon system divulged to a father that his daughter was pregnant. It started sending emails for deals on baby products, based on the daughter's purchasing habits. Sometimes cold tech knows more about us than the people we're closest to.

Facebook too sent a similar Father's Day reminder this year, which upset some users. Its "On This Day" feature also regularly invites you to revisit posts from the past. It often resurfaces upsetting content we've long forgotten, like photos of former significant others, or loved ones that have passed away (you can edit what it pulls up).

This isn't even the first time Google encouraged users to reach out to their fathers around the annual holiday. Back in 2011, it added a reminder on the front page of Google Search encouraging you to reach out to dad via Gmail. Predictably, the reminder upset or angered users like me, who have lost their parents.

It's not clear why Google chose to roll out a similar feature again this year. But it probably made the decision because many users like to be reminded of holidays like Father's Day. We let technology be part of our lives because it often makes them easier. What's not clear yet is how much it needs to know about us to do its job well.