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The New Unified Google Policy Explained

Reprinted from my post on Politic365.com

If you are a user of any Google services – including Google search engine, Google Plus, Gmail, Blogger, Chrome, Google Voice, Picasa, Google Apps, Google services on Android phones and YouTube – you may have gotten several notices.

Google is consolidating the privacy policy for all those services into one.

Effective March 1, it will combine the privacy policies of 60 services under one privacy policy.

In a blog post, Google’s director of privacy, product, and engineering Anna Whitten, said the streamlining will enable Google to provide more efficient services.

What this means is that if you conduct a search in one service and log out, Google can deliver an answer for you when you log into another.  Stated another way: if you are signed in to Google, it could combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from another service.

“In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience,” Whitten wrote about the changes that  are slated to go into effect “… in just over a month.”

Not all are convinced Google’s motives are as innocent as that. The new policy has ears perked. Competitors and consumer watchdogs  say the new combined policy would make it harder to “opt out” of specific information gathering tied to one particular service since there will only be one catchall opt in or opt out option.

There is a lot of personal information at stake in all this.  Among the various information pieces that Google’s policy indicates it collects:

  • Your search queries
  • Who you have called;
  • How long you were on a call;
  • Your actual location via GPS enable services; and
  • Personal and embedded information about you stored in your computer that web cookies collect and send back to Google each time you log on to one of its services, among other information.

This data is obviously collected for advertising and other marketing purposes.  As with its previous policies, fragmented across different services, Google shared information collected with third party companies, organizations and individuals with consumer consent. But, if a user wishes to opt out of one service and not another, it appears like they no longer have that option.

Lawmakers concerned that users will actually lose flexibility, sent Google a letter asking it clarify the new policy.

Senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Ed Markey (D-Mass) wrote in a statement: “It is imperative that users will be able to decide whether they want their information shared across the spectrum of Google’s offerings.”  He joined with six other House lawmakers in a January 26 letter to Google asking it to clarify its plans and how it will use information collected to target advertising to users.

In a January 30 letter to Congress, Google wrote: “[T]he updated privacy policy reflects our efforts to create one beautifully simple, intuitive user experience across Google.”

The fact remains that even if users log out, they may be lulled into a false sense of security that their data is not being shared, manipulated or accessed by other sites.

The only way they can stop the data collection from being used across services is by taking an active role in limiting information made available. To protect private information users can take certain steps including:

  • Deleting their search history from their browser after each use
  • Edit information stored in your Google Account in the Google Dashboard
  • In Google’s Ads preferences manager edit or turn off ads personalization entirely
  • Go “off the record” in Gmail chat
  • Use incognito browsing in Chrome which lets you surf the web in stealth mode
  • Use session-wide SSL encryption in Gmail which helps protect your email and search results from being used by others sharing an Internet connection, like a WiFi hotspot for example

The fact that most users do not understand and most likely will not go through all these procedures is still an issue.

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