Wednesday, October 17, 2012

EU blasts Google over privacy, but users less concerned

Google hold a massive amount of data about its users, but there are some that are more than a little concerned over how the search giant uses that data and with whom it is shared. On Tuesday the EU warned the company that its privacy policy needed to change and accused Google  of providing "incomplete and approximate" details which raised "deep concerns about data protection and the respect of the European law".

Users unconcerned

However, while it is true that Google collects vast amounts of data few actual users seem perturbed about it, nor feel the company is going too far. Soon after BBC Click posted the story on its Google+ page a number of users posted their opinions on the matter.

"Let us choose, not EU burrow-crats" wrote Nobilangelo Ceramalus, while another Google+ user Sneaky Johnson suggested those unhappy with the policy need not use Google services. "You dont like it?.... dont use it!" Johnson posted. This was a view expressed by many, and some were happier that Google's privacy policy covered all its products. "I actually prefer to manage my Google services from a single point. Google gave plenty of notice for the change, and surely those that don't like it are able to move to another "free" service?," Harmohn Laehri wrote.


Google was transparent and open about the change of its privacy policy. And while some have accused the company of being more invasive, the policy concerning its products has changed very little.

Before the change which was implemented in March 2012, there were 60 different privacy policies across Google each relating to different products or services. By replacing them with one that was shorter and easier to read Google believed it would simplify things for its users.

"The new policy and terms cover multiple products and features, reflecting our desire to create one beautifully simple and intuitive experience across Google," the company said, while encouraging users to check out the new terms and conditions.

"This stuff matters, so please take a few minutes to read our updated Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service," the company urged. In fact far from hiding the policy in a dark corner of the Internet, every time a user navigated to a Google page there was a bold message informing Internet users of the changes.

Collecting data

So what information are Google collecting? In respect to users with a Google account there is a great deal of information that is collected. And while some might question aspects of privacy related to the data collected, much is necessary to provide the services users want. Furthermore much of the data collected is little different from information collected and stored by other organisations, be they Internet companies or otherwise.

It might seem creepy that Google would want to record device information, such as the hardware model, operating system version, and other unique device identifiers and mobile network information, including a phone number. However there are valid reasons for doing so. On Android devices, some software may work on one model but not another. There are regional restrictions related to certain apps available via Google's Play Store, which through identifying the number, through the SIM such restrictions may be applied. Some expats have found these restrictions by chance whilst visiting other countries and using local SIMs. For example paid apps are unavailable in China and as such there are a number of apps which cannot be downloaded if a phone has a Chinese SIM installed. Of course the system can be tricked by swapping the SIM for a UK or US SIM. Such restrictions are not ones that Google has applied. Sometimes it is because they have not established agreements for local markets, or with the app provider concerned.

One clear example of this are applications or services such as Google Music, Play Books or Movies which are unavailable in certain countries. In such cases restrictions can be applied through the monitoring of the IP [Internet Protocol] address. Again the collection of this information is little different from other Internet provided services. The BBC identifies users in other countries and blocks services such as its iPlayer outside of the British Isles. Hulu, a US based video service, also blocks access to users outside the United States by logging IP addresses.

Other information such as device event information, such as crashes, system activity, hardware settings, browser type, browser language, the date and time of a request or referral URL is often needed in order to resolve problems. Furthermore just as many websites use cookies to track usage so too does Google in order to identify a particular browser and associate it to a specific user account.

Tracking users

Google might also track a user's location, through an IP address, cellular information or GPS data. This might seem particularly creepy and verging on a Big Brother scenario. However, without giving these permission the company would be unable to offer location based services that many take for granted.

"When you use a location-enabled Google service, we may collect and process information about your actual location, such as GPS signals sent by a mobile device," the company states in its policy. "We may also use various technologies to determine location, such as sensor data from your device that may, for example, provide information on nearby Wi-Fi access points and mobile towers."

Users are usually prompted to agree to such permissions when turning on applications which need this information. For example those using Google Now, Latitude, Maps and weather applications need to agree in order to obtain relevant information. Without expressly agreeing to this a weather app would not be able to offer weather in the area a user might find oneself. Google Now, an intelligent personal assistant which works as an application for Google's Android mobile phone operating system would be devoid of function should permissions to access location not be granted.

Real names & pseudonyms

While the joining of several services together is simpler, Google recognised that not all users would be entirely happy. One concern many users had was the change in the way Google allowed pseudonyms in some of its products and the joining of some services together created a issue for some.

"We may use the name that you provide for your Google Profile across all of the services we offer that require a Google Account," the company said. "In addition, we may replace past names associated with your Google Account, so that you are represented consistently across all our services. If other users already have your email or other information that identifies you, we may show them your publicly visible Google Profile information, such as your name and photo."

For some, this is of no particular consequence. But for bloggers and those posting in Google forums the posting of a real name could prove dangerous. Fortunately, Google does not insist upon those using its Blogger service to post using their real name and join accounts together. However, those using Google+ are obliged to use a real name, though some users do manage to evade Google's controls and set up accounts with fake names or pseudonyms.

Targeting ads

The company says it understands that people have different privacy concerns. "Our goal is to be clear about what information we collect, so that you can make meaningful choices about how it is used," they say. As such they provide a simplified 'Dashboard' where users can review and control what parts of their account are tied together.

One reason why Google collects and collates data from users Internet habits is to target them with advertising. Of course many people hate ads on the net, even Google's unobtrusive commercial messages that often appear just as text. Nonetheless, they are a fact of life and help pay for Google's 'free' web services.

Whether or not one logged in to a Google account, Google searches, YouTube pages and other websites are likely to display ads. But through targeting these ads may be far more useful. That can be good for the user as well as Google who display ads on behalf of companies through their Adwords product.

"With personalized ads, we can improve your ad experience by showing you ads related to websites you visit, recent searches and clicks, or information from your Gmail inbox," the company explains.

Simply put, a user who is signed in to their Google account and that searches for particular items such as printer products or baby clothing may find that on subsequent visits to a website displaying Adword advertisements will see commercials showing related items. For a long time Google has 'read' users' Gmail in order to target ads alongside messages.

But while some might find it creepy that Google 'reads' their email or sifts through their Internet searches, the trawling of such data is purely automatic. Furthermore the data is not directly shared with advertisers.

There are some that fear governments accessing their data. And of course it is possible that with an appropriate warrant a user's data might be handed to law enforcement. Such cases are rare however, though it does happen [tvnewswatch: Google forced to reveal blogger...], and Google are in no different a position than companies like Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft or other Internet company that stores information on its users. In fact new legislation is already being proposed to tighten the way people use social networks [Telegraph].

Wordy agreements

In fact the anger and criticism fired at Google could easily be laid at the door of many others, some of which have been far less transparent concerning how it uses the data supplied by users.

While Google's Privacy policy clocks in at around 2,200 words, Facebook's much criticized privacy agreement is now longer than the US Constitution, clocking in at 5,830 words [NYT].

Twitter's Privacy policy is around 2,100 words. Furthermore despite  the common belief that the service provides anonymity to its users, Twitter state that it too logs data which "may include information such as your IP address, browser type, operating system, the referring web page, pages visited, location, your mobile carrier, device and application IDs, search terms, and cookie information."

Microsoft's hidden agenda

Microsoft, which like Google provides many cloud and search services also updated its privacy policy this year. Much of the detail contained within the policy is little different than that issued by Google. However far less publicity or criticism surrounded Microsoft's updated contract with its users which was hidden away on a little read blogpost. While a few blogs such as MarketingLand picked up on the changes, Microsoft's policy created few ripples in the media let alone the European Parliament.

Google has attempted to be open and transparent with its users, many of whom would likely not read the terms and conditions that applied to each individual service they had been using for years. Instead of calming people's fear, the attempt to simplify, unify and clarify the way Google used people's data has instead heightened fears, despite the fact little had really changed. "Our first priority is the privacy and security of your data, and we go to great lengths to protect it," Google said in a recent blogpost where they show off their vast data centres.

No true anonymity

At the end of the day, there is no true anonymity on the web. When using web services it is a matter of who one trusts with private or personal data. To retreat to the past and not use email, cloud services and social networks is perhaps a bit impractical. Using VPNs, to hide IP addresses, could help. But in reality privacy ended when the Internet came into being.

related: tvnewswatch: Google concerns over privacy / tvnewswatch: Viacom battle with Google threatens privacy / tvnewswatch: Google reacts to criticism over privacy / Guardian / Telegraph / WSJ / IBT  

tvnewswatch, London, UK

No comments: