Monday, January 30, 2012

Concern over Google's new privacy policy

In recent days Google has been criticised for its new privacy policy which it says simplifies things across its large number of online tools and applications. But while there are some legitimate concerns, the criticism is unwarranted given the way most people use the web

From search to ads

While many think of Google as primarily a search engine, it has in fact become the world's biggest advertiser. In short, whether a user is checking their GMail, looking for information on a particular technology, or searching for a place or country, there will be advertisements places alongside the page or amongst the search results.

Since the web is saturated with advertisements, few people question the placing of Google's specifically chosen advertisements on their web space.

But with recent announcements concerning Google's plan to reshape the way it handles personal data, the debate over how that information is stored or used is concerning privacy advocates and rekindling the debate over whether Google's mantra of "do no evil" is being further eroded.

Relevant results

Search for 'television' and a page of results will appear connected to this subject. On the top will be two or three advertisements which depending upon your detected IP address will show retailers and online suppliers of such products. To the right will be an additional list of ads.

But even in the main list of search results will be a number of links which point to retailers, with perhaps only a couple linking to information about television as a subject. The Wikipedia page does in fact come at the top of the page, but many others would be irrelevant for those searching for information about the actual item itself.

In order to obtain such specific information it is necessary to add more key words to the search. Typing 'television' and 'invention' produces no advertisements and far more informative links. But as advertisers themselves become savvy, and incorporate Search Engine Optimisation [SEO] into their marketing strategy, even specific enquiries can lead to a page full of ads.

Users of GMail will also be familiar with advertisements alongside their messages. While some are contextually related to the email content, others may have been picked due to a users email history.

Collecting data

Adverts are not placed in Google Calendar or Docs, but it is possible that content is scanned in order that Google can make contextual ad placements in other products.

In fact Google freely admits in its new policy that it collects "information about the services that you use and how you use them, such as when you visit a website that uses our advertising services or you view and interact with our ads and content."

Logging locations

But why should this matter? After all if a user is looking for a product, is it not better that relevant products and services appear in search results rather than ones that have no bearing or relevancy.

Some have criticised in particular Google's logging of people's actual location. But by identifying IP addresses and other methods to locate a user's whereabouts, information can be tailored and be more specific. A search for 'TV guide' would be far less useful if it gave returned results from all around the world rather than one's actual location.


For its part Google says it it trying to be transparent and make things easier for its users.  "We're making things simpler and we're trying to be upfront about it," Google Policy Manager Betsy Masiello said on a blogpost.

But while Google say that individuals and companies still have control over what is shared or stored, some companies and government organisations remain uneasy about the changes.

"You still have choice and control," the company insists. "You don't need to log in to use many of our services, including Search, Maps and YouTube," but "If you are logged in, you can still edit or turn off your Search history, switch Gmail chat to 'off the record,' control the way Google tailors ads to your interests, use Incognito mode on Chrome, or use any of the other privacy tools we offer."

Furthermore, Google states it is not collecting more data and that their new policy simply makes it clearer as to how they use that data.

This has not satisfied everyone however. SafeGov dispute Google's claims concerning privacy and control [PC World], while others have suggested that the importance of advertising revenue is clouding Google's vision and changing the way the search engine operates [Venturebeat].

Some users have voiced their annoyance over integration of Google+ in their search results [Venturebeat], and apparent anomalies of users not in their 'Circles' showing up in Google searches [lead411]. Google states that users can opt out the social search feature. It is also explained in detail on some other sites such as this post on Venturebeat. But there is also growing criticism that Google's search results are getting less relevant [SearchEngineLand].


It has to be said that Google is not the only search engine, and total anonymity on the web is all but impossible. A search on Microsoft's Bing for the word 'television' also brings up many adverts and even search terms 'television' and 'invention' in conjunction return ads not seen in Google. Furthermore, Bing also publicly acknowledges it too "customizes a portion of the online ads that you see based on your past online activity."

Sharing data

When it comes to sharing data, Google say they "do not share personal information with companies, organisations and individuals outside Google" except where consent is given, because of applicable laws requiring Google to hand over data or where a domain administrator, handling your account, makes such changes. The only vague issue concerns Google's sharing of data with "affiliates or other trusted businesses or persons to process it for us, based on our instructions and in compliance with our Privacy Policy and any other appropriate confidentiality and security measures."

However, Microsoft's policy is just as vague in this regard. While they state they "do not sell, rent, or lease our customer lists to third parties" the company states, "In order to help provide our services, we occasionally provide information to other companies that work on our behalf."

Few options

One could of course refrain from using GMail, and not see those targeted advertisements, though there are few free email alternatives. Hotmail and Yahoo both display advertising on their email sites. When it comes to searching the web the choice is also narrow. With Google Chrome's incognito mode, one can at least avoid suggested results or avoid those search queries being logged with a specific account.

Much of the criticism of Google's policy changes is rather flippant when one considers people's willingness to use so many other social features on the web, be that Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Twitter and the like, some with far more dubious Terms & Conditions than Google. One should be careful with what one shares, and also check privacy settings too, but to believe there is any true privacy on the net is entirely false.

The only true way of avoiding any such issues is to not use the Internet or perhaps to only use a pseudonym for everything shared or posted. But even that can be blown wide open if close associates reveal one's real identity.

More reports: CNN / Daily Mail / Reuters / Washington Post

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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