Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Googlers, should you be alarmed?

Earlier today Google made an announcement to simplify their 70+ privacy statements down to one single privacy statement.  The new privacy statement will be effective starting March 1st, and it can be previewed here.  I'm sure everyone is thrilled to see new privacy statement from any company that you deal with.  I for one get enough of those privacy statements in my mailbox to fill a shoebox every year, and yes it goes straight to my recycle bin.  So why should anyone care?

"We can provide reminders that you're going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day. Or ensure that our spelling suggestions, even for your friends' names, are accurate because you've typed them before,"   
                                            - Alma Whitten (Director of Privacy, Product and Engineering)

Well, you should care if you have any Google account.  Remember those 70+ privacy statements?  They are from all separate products that Google offers to users today for free.  They are Gmail, YouTube, Google+, Google Maps, Google Docs, Picasa, plus dozens more services and of course Google Search.  What Google is saying to you is that they will start identifying you as a user in order to better track and profile your behavior so that they can serve more targeted ads.  While serving more relevant ads, Google is promising us that they will provide value-add services like reminding us if we are late for meeting (by tracking our location, calendar and mobile phone).  Other value-add examples include spelling suggestion of often misspelled word or friends' name.

This may sounds like an innocent proposition from Google to provide better user experience, but I have a feeling that Google may have gone too far in combining all identities across all services without each user opting in for such a service.

Here's why I think it's an over-reach on Google's part to combine our identity across multiple services.

Google Search is today's library search; people don't want to be identified.

For most people, especially younger generations, Google is our library.  Internet was incredibly vast library of information.  Just like identifying people who check out books from library is privacy issue and will elicit negative reaction from users, doing the same with Google Search will in fact discourage people from using Google if they know they are being identified all the time.

Combining service records to create identity is essentially putting GPS device to our internet traffic and tracking majority of our activity because Google offers many popular services people love.

Just a few days ago, US Supreme Court ruled unanimously to ban the use of GPS device without proper warrant.  I think there is an analogy to this GPS tracking.  Because Google offers many popular products, such as YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps and Google Search, establishing common identity across all products means tracking what user is doing across all different Google products.  Effectively this translates to tracking what user is doing on all Google products and profiling the user's behavior.  That sounds like GPS tracking to me in real world.

Existence of combined identity will be the attractive target for government and hackers to get information about us from single source.

Note that Google is saying they are serious about privacy.  It's because they know we would be concerned if someone were to compile all these information to create database of our behaviors across multiple products.  Another caveat is that Google will be forced to turn over this vast behavior tracking information to government if requested.  If such tracking data exists, it will also be subject to hackers who could be happily employed by Google for all we know.

If-you-are-not-happy-use-something-else Policy may backfire for Google

For all that trouble, we are getting spell checkers and meeting reminder?

I just don't think Google made a compelling argument for users to opt-in (or swallow since Google doesn't seem like giving the users a choice to opt out) the new combined identity.  We need to let Google know that this is not fair proposition for users, and users must be provided an option to opt out.

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