When Google Holds Your Digital Self Hostage, Or, Saturday Morning at 10:09am

This morning I find myself unable to access my personal Gmail account. Like many of you, surely, I have several email addresses. Until an hour ago, the roster included my work account, the blog account at Yahoo, and an account for newsletters, also at Yahoo. (ahem, Brora, Brooks Brothers and J. Crew), . Oh, and the afore-mentioned, now kidnapped, Gmail.

Google says there has been unusual activity in my account, and requires that I give them a phone number to get back in. Not an email account, mind you. I’d be fine with that. I’m set up for that. But I’m don’t want to give Google my phone numbers. Not my landline, and certainly not my mobile. It feels like life-tracking ransom. I suspect, perhaps wrongly, that this is part of their efforts to unseat the iPhone and make the Android platform more valuable.

And I wonder, will Google doom themselves with their own ubiquitous success? Other infrastructure industries were eventually regulated, railways, gas lines, telephone service. As a result, anyone who wants to record a phone call has to prove necessity. Google, however, can track us six ways from Sunday. I’ve assumed no evil intent; I’m not particularly Libertarian. But one wonders. “Fie upon the rascals!” I say. “Fie upon their bullying user interface!”

I am perhaps making a mountain out of a molehill. Maybe it’s innocent. Maybe I’m just not seeing the button, or the link, to “If you don’t want to give us your phone number, here’s another security verification process.” I welcome anyone who can show me my mistake. I prefer a world without underhandedness of any sort.

In the meantime,  friends and family, in case you wonder why I’m not answering any Gmail, I’m holding out. Holding out with my old friend Yahoo. Who, although they might have wanted to own the world, just weren’t up to it. Capitalism is sometimes best in its more docile incarnation.

UPDATE: I sent a message into the deep depths of Google help, and received the following email in reply. <<We apologize for any inconvenience you may have experienced. The issue you described should now be resolved.>> Guess what. There are people in there. All is not lost. Happy Sunday to all.

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  • Yahoo mail does this to me frequently.
    I just ignore and go to the right hand corner and click on the very small mail button and by pass.
    Seriously! Do they think we are going to give them our phone numbers? If you can’t find the escape hatch, make up a number.My motto is, “Ignore all stupid and ugly things and go have a good time” ;)
    Have a wonderful weekend.
    SF Bay Area

  • I’ve heard Google don’t want to talk to you / call unless there is a problem with your account and it may not be anything you’ve done. I know that’s true with our credit card from one of the big names. But don’t take my word for it, because (crossing fingers – so far) it hasn’t happened to me with Google. However I lost access to my first Yahoo email account and never got an answer from Yahoo as to why and still can’t get into that account and they didn’t even bother to call or write.

    Not sure any of them (Google/Yahoo) are any different. They seem to be big robots in the sky. I sincerely wish you the very best of luck. Personally I would take a chance and talk to them if you don’t have access to your account. How else will you get it back? Just my two cents.

  • Good morning, missy. I have just spent over an hour on computer trials and tribulations. I am so dependent. Makes me wonder what we would all do if the solar flares took it all out one day. It would provide a whole new learning curve to those 30 and under to learn how to communicate with one another. Very old school. :)

    Love the St. Regis photos. I do believe I am overdue for a SF holiday. Wish something so luxurious existed on the other side of the bay bridge. Occupy tents are not my style.

    Have a wonderful weekend. Absolutely sunny and 75 down state.

  • This is very much a hot button issue. My little pea brain puts Google’s data hoarding and selling at almost the same level as Mr. Zuckerberg’s information scraping thuggery-in-the-guise-of-making-life-better exploits. I became alarmed enough to do a little research and study on how the information is harvested, stored, and sold. The oft-repeated claim it is “non-identifying” data is hogwash, it’s a nasty piece of business.

    I’ve never been asked for a phone number, but only because I refused to provide one when registering my gmail accounts, and then ignoring the constant reminders that I should add one. It really begs the question, whose email account is it, anyway?

  • I keep refusing to add my phone number to google and their constant “reminder”of the fact that my account is “vulnerable”because I don’t is beginning to bother me. I hope you can find a way around this and recover your gmail account soon.

    12:41 pm
    Sheryl said...


    Google’s insistence on a phone number is definitely rubbing me the wrong way. ESPECIALLY because it doesn’t give a clear way to opt out or click a button that says “please don’t ask me this again”.

    6:18 pm
    Julia said...

    Exactly, Marcela. I can’t think of a reason why my phone number would make my accounts less “vulnerable.” I can think of many reasons why it would be great for Google and Yahoo to have it for marketing purposes.

  • Lisa, there is a small button that says “Proceed without phone number…”. it took me some time to figure that out.

    I loathe those manipulative decision-finding layouts. Reminds me of the referendum where the “no” was supposed to be very small compared to the “yes” when Austrians voted for the annexation in 1938. Not that those two can ever be compared.

    But in the end you believe you have to fill in your phone numner.

  • I don’t have any gmail or yahoo accounts, I guess thankfully. But every time there is that button asking if they can access information, I think twice. But ultimately, I end up pushing it because if I want to be connected, there doesn’t seem to be any choice!! Hope you get it all resolved soon – so very inconvenient!

  • This is probably why I have only one email account! (maybe a mistake/ what if something happened with it!)

    It is awful to have to deal with all of this!

    Art by Karena

  • Google is really starting to get on my nerves… they’re altering their privacy rules now to an even more open stance and I just don’t trust them. I don’t have a g-mail acct. so I can’t offer any help there, but I do wish you great success in finding a teeny little hidden opt out button somewhere.
    Please let us know how it all turns out…
    xo J~

  • Hi Lisa,
    It’s just an anti-spam measure: it doesn’t have to be your phone number (although for most people, remembering a string of numbers is easiest that way) – it could be a phone number that you don’t use anymore, or essentially any numbers that you alone know and that a spammer or hacker wouldn’t know. There’s more info on that here:

    “Unusual activity” can mean that someone has tried to access your account from another country – the best way to check that is to check the ‘last account activity’ link at the bottom of your Gmail homepage.

    It’s worth noting that Google is one of the most transparent tech companies when it comes to privacy policies: other companies don’t tell you when they’re changing or what it means, nor do they allow things like Google Dashboard, where you can see and control how much information you have made public.

    Hope this helps and that you can access your account soon: these things are frustrating, but in this case, designed to help you to protect your account.

    Kate x

  • I never give MY real phone number on any online request form but I do give a real number: happens to be the fax line of a place I no longer work. I’m sure you could come up with a real (fake) number and just use it as your default (I can think of a few irritating businesses whose fax or phone numbers I’d love to give away…) That way your number won’t get sold to telemarketing lists, and you get the satisfaction of knowing some telemarketer will encounter annoying fax tones.

    It’s very sneaky but worth money to them to collect numbers to sell as lists. They also figure they can store it for a collection agency to potentially harass you in the future. All in a shady day’s work…

  • Several times Gmail has asked for my phone number. They did not say there had been some unusual activity on my account, but that it would make my gmail experience better or more secure. I always bypass it.

    I like the idea of giving them a real number that is not yours–the fax number is a good idea. I know that you may think that is being dishonest. I would only do it as a last resort.

  • It has also asked me for my phone number. I don’t carry a cell except when we travel and I have simply clicked through without any repercussions.

  • surely you mean ‘fie’ and not ‘fi’?

    5:43 pm
    Lisa said...

    Ha! You are right. I will make the change. i was so annoyed I lost my Shakespearean spelling!

  • Google is to be respected [read: feared].

    I agree with you LPC. This infuriates me as well.

    If google wants your/my phone number, they can obtain it in milleseconds, everything they want to know is already embedded within the matrix of our online information, willingly provided via routine transactions fulfilled all day long from here to there, and they have the stuff to obtain it. They and their search + earth devices know how to walk themselves, and others, right up to our doorstep, they know our property valuation, they know our neighbors, our address and our phone number, they know if we need paint and they know what we drive, whether we like it or not.

    Something else is going on with this stubborn phone number blocking effort, they have our number if they want it, what’s going on here. Do they count you/us signing off on their repeated requests as a conquest, do they want us to go on record as willingly granting them an override despite a previously stated, firm preference, is that their goal? Simply that we, as a specific population known only to them, are on record as capitulating? once, twice, enough times so that we now form a new baseline? How many times did it take, what ads did we click in the margin in the meantime.

    This kind of overkill reminds me of Nixon who was guaranteed a landslide, yet still he went hellbent on breaking and entering the DNC despite an insanely stacked deck. Nixon and google have the same kind of monopoly: unbeatable, incomparable. Does blind paranoia precede treading dangerously on legally protected grounds? More importantly, when we capitulate incrementally on our stated privacy preferences, once, twice, three times [we think privately, but google is keeping score], we forfeit our protection. Were we to go back after the fact in an attempt to reclaim legal protection through due process complaint, we’d discover that we’d signed all our protection over to google through these little capitulations made all along the way.


  • I just keep ignoring Google’s request to add a phone number… I am very wary about having my phone number floating out there. Bad enough that telemarketers have it.

  • Sorry about your account. I’ve ignored pleas from google to enter my phone number. They’ve got plenty of information about me already.

    I think they’re all jealous of Facebook and how much information they’ amassed about people.

  • I am quite upset at google’s recent announcement that they are going to aggregate data to help us. Stay out of the contents of my gmail. Stay out of facebook. Leave me alone.

    I have switched to bing for searches.

    And I, too, have multiple email accounts. Why would I put my real name and address out on an account I use for commenting on blogs? Or one I use for ordering things online?

  • I ignored Google’s efforts to get me to divulge my phone number until I read a recent article in Atlantic Monthly that told the horrific story of one woman’s experience with having her gmail account hacked, money requested in her name (to which people responded), and so forth. It was amazing how quickly spammers and hackers could use her information.

    Fortunately for her, she HAD given Google her phone number and “they” were able to restore her account, close down the hackers, etc.

    Here’s a link: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/hacked/8673/4/?single_page=true

    What I don’t like is the integration of my Google searches, the ads on my gmail, and who knows what else. I prefer to compartmentalize my life according to MY wants, not theirs.

  • I’m overjoyed that Google came through for you! I’d like to hear more of this kind of sane resolution than the grim stuff that comes across my desk. This foil hat doesn’t coordinate with any of my wardrobe, either.

    8:11 pm
    Lisa said...


  • Feel like I am giving phone number and email addresses to everyone these days – glad to hear it got resolved, so frustrating the machine!

  • Google and Facebook with their information greediness have completely turned me off. The few times a week I access those 2, I only do it using Google Chrome. I don’t use Google Chrome for anything else. They can track me all they want and (hopefully) it looks like I only go to gmail and facebook.

    Google and Facebook can have my phone number when I’m dead.

  • Ugh. Sounds like a drag. Glad all is well again in google land!