How Does Google’s Privacy Policy Affect You?

It’s Time to Pay Attention to How Google Is Tracking Your Online Behavior

February 23, 2012

Google’s new unified privacy policy gives customers more control over how and when they are tracked, but it makes people think twice about whether or not they want Google to watch and capture everything they do. Who else can examine the logs that Google keeps? Government agencies can gain access to our search and navigation histories without a warrant. How much information do we really want to have tracked? When we post public information to Facebook or to Google+, we know that we are putting it out there forever for the world to see. But when we browse and search the Web, it feels creepy to know that we’re being tracked and logs are being made of our behavior. Each of us probably falls at a different point on the privacy continuum. So you should start by deciding where your comfort zone is and then examine the different controls and opt outs that Google provides to tailor your relationship so it works for you.

NETTING IT OUT

Google’s new integrated privacy policy and terms of service go into effect on March 1, 2012. The good news is that this move has engendered a lot of healthy discussion about what Google actually tracks about each of us. This is making us all more conscious about the degree to which our online behavior is trackable and valuable to advertisers. The bad news is that you probably should take a few hours out of your busy lives to adjust your Google account settings and usage. You may even decide to opt out of using Google accounts and its services altogether.

Any user of Google’s free services should bear in mind that you—the user—are the product. Your behavior, your interests, and your search and navigation history are tracked in order to provide advertisers with a better chance of offering you something you might really value. That’s the tradeoff that you’re making when you use free search, maps, email, and YouTube for video storage and downloads, and so on.

If you enjoy using these Google services, we recommend that you consider switching to a paid Google Apps for business account in order to gain more control over the information that Google keeps about you, without losing the convenience of being able to customize your settings, and to save and share things with others. At the same time, we recommend that you consider segregating your paid account from any free Google accounts you may have, in order to enable you to keep different aspects of your life (work vs. hobby vs. family, for example) more distinct.

Google Wants You to Enrich Your Profile

 (Click on image to enlarge.)

© 2012 Google

Google creates a basic account for you with your first name, last name and email address. But they encourage you to create a searchable “pubic” profile that will show the world what you want people to see/know about you.


HOW GOOGLE CHANGED ITS PRIVACY POLICY

Consolidating Users’ Behavior Across Google Services

Google’s privacy policy and terms of service have always stated that the company reserves the right to collect and use information about what users do when using its services, in order to provide users with a more personalized experience.

What is about to change on March 1, 2012 is the fact that Google will be pulling all of our search history and online behavior together and associating that with our personal profiles. Google asserts that the personal information being collected will not be shared directly with any of Google’s advertising partners, but that information will be used to provide a more personalized experience, more targeted ads, and, presumably, more relevant offers.

Until now, Google hasn’t pulled together everything it knows about each one of us into a single, consolidated profile and history. Up until now, users’ search behavior was tracked and the results were used to provide more personalized search results and more appropriate search ad targeting. Users’ YouTube downloads, likes, and favorites were analyzed in order to recommend appropriate videos for each user. But what you searched for or watched on YouTube was apparently not linked to what you searched for using Google outside of YouTube. Similarly, the text in users’ free Gmail accounts was mined (by an automated program, not read by actual people) in order to let Google automatically provide more relevant ads to free Gmail users. So, up until now, Google was tracking and analyzing our behavior. But Google wasn’t combining all that information.

Why Is This a Tipping Point for Many Consumers?

Now Google is combining all the information it has about us into a single profile. What makes Google’s tracking and targeted marketing scary to many people are three fundamental issues:

1. You can’t really see what is being tracked. It’s not the same as seeing your profile on Facebook the way your friends and family do, or looking at your timeline on Facebook, or seeing what photos people have tagged with your name. What’s being tracked is what you click on, what you search for, and what you download. That’s less visible to us as users, and perhaps scarier.

2. You don’t know who is using the information. As an end-user, you don’t know who has access to the trail of breadcrumbs you’re leaving behind. But we do know that in the U.S., at least, government agencies can request and gain access to that information without the need for a warrant and without notifying you. So Big Brother can watch you. So could “Bad Guys.com” if they’re able to hack into Google’s analytics and access the same information that government agencies can.

3. If you use a free Google account, you don’t have the ability to opt out of having at least some of your data collected, and your behavior tracked. So, the only real opt out you have is whether or not to use Google’s free services.

In a post entitled “Face-to-Face with Facebook” on June 18, 2010, Esther Dyson cogently explained the difference between users’ behaviors and expectations when we post on a public site like Facebook [which would also pertain to Google+, Google’s own social media site], and what we expect when it comes to mining our online activities behind the scenes:

“The comforting thing about the kind of data that Facebook primarily deals with is that it’s public. If your friends and other people can see it, so can you.

More troubling is the data you don’t even know about – the kind of data about your online activities collected by ad networks and shared with advertisers and other marketers, and sometimes correlated with offline data from other vendors. By and large, that’s information you can’t see – what you clicked on, what you searched for, which pages you came from and went to – and neither can your friends, for the most part. But that information is sold and traded, manipulated with algorithms to classify you and to determine what ads you see, what e-mails you receive, and often what offers are made to you. Of course, some of that information could go astray...

Personally, I don’t really mind, but there are many people who would, if they understood what was going on in the first place. I predict that, whether it’s this year or in ten years, this will become a much greater issue than what information people share openly with friends.

The challenge is to make this hidden sharing of information less confusing, more explicit, and more transparent before the majority of people discover it for themselves in a way that leaves them feeling deceived.”


~ Esther Dyson

So the question is, as Google roles out its new privacy policy combined with a massive education campaign: is Google succeeding in making “this hidden sharing of information less confusing, more explicit, and more transparent?”

Our initial take is “no.” It is, unfortunately, still too difficult to understand what privacy tradeoffs we are actually making when we ...


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1 comment


  • Patty_author
    Patricia Seybold on May 20, 2012 at 9:11 p.m.
    For more coverage of Google's privacy practices, how much transparency Google offers, and how well that transparency really works, see my blog write up "NEW: Sign Up to View Your Google Account Activity" http://outsideinnovation.blogs.com/pseybold/2012/04/new-sign-up-to-view-your-google-account-activity.html
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