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Googling away your privacy?

March 12, 2012



It is highly unlikely that Google could have foreseen the storm that erupted when it announced its new privacy policy in early 2012. The search engine giant was soon perceived as “enemy number one” by privacy pundits everywhere. Facebook, for a change, was spared, and Google was lambasted for introducing clauses that every privacy expert felt would severely impact the rights of internet users everywhere. Although the reaction from a few quarters was a bit extreme, it is fair to say that some aspects of Google’s new privacy policy should be cause for concern.

What all the hype is about: It all started innocently enough, when Google announced its plans to unify all of its different privacy policies, which amounted to around 60, under one large over-arching privacy policy. Accordingly to the new terms, once a user signs onto one of Google’s services, he or she would be treated as a single user across all of Google’s platforms. This way, the information that Google gathers from users would be combined to give “a simpler, more intuitive Google experience,” as stated by Alma Whitten, the company’s Director of Privacy, Product and Engineering. This basically means that Google can use information collected from a user’s activities on YouTube, Gmail and Google+ to customise and personalise the search results.

You may find Google filling out search queries based on your personal preferences before you’ve finished typing them. Similarly, a user of Google Calendar may find his or her e-mail contacts from Gmail being suggested for events, and this same event information being carried over to Google Maps. In another scenario, you may be reminded that you are going to be late for an event, based on your location and calendar. While the search engine giant’s plan to connect all the user information across its different services may seem like a terrific way of integrating one’s activities online, and bringing a personal touch to one’s online experience, it also means that a Google user will have his entire session – from YouTube to Gmail and Google+ tracked and analysed. This is definitely much more than what some privacy-conscious users can stomach. The amount of data that Google can compile on its users is indeed worrying.

Google vs. consumer privacy: It was not long before the backlash on Google’s new policies started across the internet, with privacy activists stating that Google had indeed finally gone over to the dark side and betrayed its motto by becoming “evil”. All sorts of conspiracy theories were spelled out, including speculation that Google snoops on people’s private meetings on Google Calendar and publishes that information on Google Maps; thereby destroying any semblance of personal privacy. Privacy pundits cried out that a user of Google applications could pretty much wave away any chance of carrying out activities in anonymity as every action would be tracked and analysed. Previously, this tracking was restricted to a particular service, but now it would be carried out across the entire user session. Even members of the US Congress expressed concern over the matter, and promised to look into how much data Google was storing about its users. Google did attempt to deal with the backlash by explaining that it had not collected any data that it had not done in the past, and that it was all being done to improve their services. The image of the new policies, however, had been tarnished.

Giving the benefit of the doubt: There is no doubt that all the information that Google extracts from its users (and any analysis of said information) under the new policy is a goldmine for internet advertisers. This is obviously because by being so well-informed about a user’s digital lifestyle, ads that are catered to a person’s interests are more likely to be responded to. This information will in turn help Google charge advertisers more for its ad-related services and gain more market share. To stay relevant in the face of competitors like Facebook and Twitter, it seems like Google has resorted to using its massive database of user information to gain a stronghold in ad-based services, all in the name of improving “the quality of its user experience”.

Having a complete 360-degree view of its users will allow it to create more effective and well-tailored ads, as well as streamline all its services. Google should, however, be commended for making no secret about what information it will and will not store. Also, lessening the amount of policies that one has to sift through to find out what tracking is being done on them is less time-consuming for the user. It should also be stressed that people who are not interested in integrating their online activities, can choose to not sign in for Google’s services like YouTube and Google Maps, and use them anonymously. Also, once a person has logged in, there are options available for limiting the amount of data that can tracked.

It would be easy to paint Google as the ultimate villain here, but the truth is never black or white; it’s more sensible to read and comprehend the policy yourself, rather than blindly follow the hysteria. The only way that internet-based companies and users can live together peacefully is by making privacy policies completely transparent and visible, and implementing them with the consent of both the tracker and the tracked. The fine line between useful tracking and intrusive snooping is one that will continue to be questioned and crossed in the age of social media and the internet – whether we like it or not.