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Google Faces Concerns Over Privacy Changes

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Google is to unify its privacy policies across its online product portfolio, but some are worried by the move

Search engine Google has revealed it is to consolidate and unify its privacy policies across its online portfolio, including Google+ and Google Docs.

The consolidation comes because Google is now thought to have as many as 70 documents pertaining to privacy policies, and it now hopes to produce a single privacy document as soon as 1 March this year.

Legal Gloop

The news of the move to a single privacy policy came in an online video, in which Google promised that the new single privacy document would contain “fewer words, more simple explanations, and less legal gloop to wade through.”

But perhaps controversially, one of the changes means that users will be treated as a single user across all of Google’s online products, so Google can “deliver a more intuitive experience,” whether the user is in YouTube, Gmail, Google Docs, or any other product offered by Google.

Google was keen to point out that this so called user tracking option does provide some benefits to the user. For example a meeting set up in Google Calendar should be utilise local traffic information gathered from other Google apps to alert you if you would be late, but some users may object to having Google keeping tabs on their location.

Google insisted this single-user approach will allow it to deliver better search results to the end user, because the more it knows about the individual it can provide more relevant search results. It will give Google the chance to realise that if a user is using the search term “Jaguar”, they are looking at cars and not big cats. Essentially Google will use the activities of users on sister sites like Gmail and YouTube in order to influence those users’ search results.

Simpler Experience?

“In just over a month we will make some changes to our privacy policies and Google Terms of Service,” Google Product and Engineering Director of Privacy Alma Whitten wrote in a company blog posting.

“The main change is for users with Google Accounts. Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.”

And Whitten sort to head off any likely privacy protests about the changes.

“Finally, what we’re not changing. We remain committed to data liberation, so if you want to take your information elsewhere you can,” Whitten wrote. “We don’t sell your personal information, nor do we share it externally without your permission except in very limited circumstances like a valid court order.”

“We believe this new, simpler policy will make it easier for people to understand our privacy practices as well as enable Google to improve the services we offer,” Whitten concluded. “Whether you’re a new Google user or an old hand, please do take the time to read our new privacy policy and terms, learn more about the changes we’re making and understand the controls we offer.

Privacy Concerns

But the move is already attracting a response. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was reported as saying that Google’s disclosure that it will track what users do across all Google-owned services, seems more like a confession than a bold new move.

EEF technology projects director Peter Eckersley was quoted as saying by USA Today that Google has always effectively kept linkable records of activity on Gmail, Search, Maps and Market for Android, and other services.

“Only very sophisticated users have ever been able to remove any of that linkability, and that remains the case today,” Eckersley said.

Meanwhile, a US senator has also voiced his unease. “I am troubled that these changes appear to allow greater use by Google of consumers’ information but do not give consumers the ability to opt out of such new uses of their data,” wrote Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, on a blog post.

Blumenthal serves on the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law.

“The lack of opt-out means users cannot pick and choose which data they want integrated into their Google profiles,” he wrote. “Private e-mail messages might contain any number of personal, embarrassing, or otherwise damaging information, and Google’s attempts to amplify and contextualize this information through targeted ads, Maps suggestions, or Calendar reminders could have negative consequences for users.”

This means that Google is likely to face some regulatory scrutiny over the move.

Google is already being taken to task by Facebook, Twitter and MySpace over its personalised search and Facebook also has its own privacy demons to face, relating to privacy changes made in December 2009, which exposed information that was previously private, such as profile photos, friend lists and locations.