Yes, it’s true. Google+ is calling it quits after its 7-year run as a social media platform, citing a low level of consumer use and a glitch in the software that put hundreds of thousands of users’ private profile data at risk as the reasons for pulling the plug…

Will it be missed? The foreseeable answer is not so much, no. But that’s not to say the event isn’t worth a little investigatory journalism to find out how it all went down…

What happened?

After a very public revelation in the Wall Street Journal that drew attention to an internal review by Google (in a very aptly named Project Strobe) revealing a vulnerability exposing the personal data of 500,000 user accounts, Google has announced that it will be shutting down it’s social network, Google+, in the coming months.

In a blog statement explaining the decision, Ben Smith, Google Fellow and Vice President of Engineering, stated the “vulnerability” potentially exposed the data of people using the site between 2015 and March of 2018 but also pointed out that the tech giant had found no evidence of data misuse.

What an oddly specific time frame…

Yes, a bit. The Wall Street Journal says Google has known about the issue for months (at least since March), but that Google thought it best not to go public with their own findings for fear of regulatory repercussions from various levels of government similar to those following the outcry sparked by the Cambridge Analytica scandal at Facebook earlier this year.

Google knew their network had a serious issue, but since they couldn’t find proof that anyone was abusing the flaw, they didn’t mention it.

What was the vulnerability?

As described by Richard Nieva and Alfred Ng at

“The bug gave apps access to information on a person’s Google+ profile that can be marked as private. That includes details like email addresses, gender, age, images, relationship statuses, places lived and occupations. Up to 438 applications on Google+ had access to this API, though Google said it has no evidence any developers were aware of the vulnerability.”

Which is quite similar to the Facebook/Cambridge Analytic debacle, only their data scraping fiasco affected 87 million users instead of only “potentially” affecting half a million users over more than a three-year period.

What’s worse, the “crime” or the “cover-up”?

It depends on who you ask. For users, of which Google admits there weren’t many (90 percent of Google+ user sessions ended in less than five seconds), the “cover-up” is the problem. This isn’t the first episode that raises doubts about the way tech firms protect personal user data. But it does raise questions about corporate responsibility when an issue is discovered.

To be fair, Google claims that:

“Whenever user data may have been affected, we go beyond our legal requirements and apply several criteria focused on our users in determining whether to provide notice…

Our Privacy & Data Protection Office reviewed this issue, looking at the type of data involved, whether we could accurately identify the users to inform, whether there was any evidence of misuse, and whether there were any actions a developer or user could take in response. None of these thresholds were met in this instance.”

For Google, the real canary in the coalmine and actual cause for concern may have been the lack of abuse. The fact that no opportunistic data scientists “took advantage” of the vulnerability may suggest that no one was even paying attention in the first place. Which tells us more about the challenges faced by Google+ in 2018 than Mr. Smith’s blog:

“Given these challenges and the very low usage of the consumer version of Google+, we decided to sunset the consumer version of Google+.”

The very low consumer usage was the real problem — one they found wasn’t worth fixing.

Still, the company plans to keep the service alive for enterprise customers, other businesses who use Google+ to facilitate conversation among co-workers. But even this seems to be another example of Google cutting it’s loses. Chopping features of the network into pieces, as it has done in the past with photo capabilities and Hangout chats, as if stripping the network for parts.

So, what can we learn?

  1. Social networks need people to survive. (Duh.)
  2. Tech companies will continue to use challenges as opportunities.
  3. The major social networks seem (relatively) settled (for now).

The debate will continue for years as to whether or not Google+ was a success or failure. Many of its features may live on as distinct products, but no can argue that Google+ didn’t live up to Google’s own expectations. Through that lens, it’s hard to see the network as anything but a missed opportunity.

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