Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Google's new privacy policies

Google is everywhere, it seems (certainly for those of us who use UMF's email or other tools.) But as you might have seen, they're changing their privacy policies as of March 1st (that's tomorrow).

What does that mean? Google says that they're doing this to simplify things, but there are several new situations you want to think about as you consider how you use the wide variety of Google-owned tools. (That means not just Gmail, but YouTube, Blogger, Picasa, Google Reader, and others.)

First, it's a good idea to read the new policy. Then you might want to read the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) guide to what's changing.

The big changes are in three areas: connecting information about you across different Google services, connecting a name on one account with names on other accounts, and phone and mobile device privacy.

The first one means that even if you're not logged in under your account on one service at the moment, but are logged into another Google service, Google will connect it. For example, if you are logged into your personal Gmail account, but not into YouTube, Google will still connect what you watched with your account.

The second one means that they may also connect a name used on one service with names on other of their services (presumably based on the email account you used to sign up or on cookies on your computer: the pieces I've seen aren't quite sure how this will work, either.)

And finally, they may store, collect, and use some information (including location data) from your phone to connect pieces of data, make recommendations, and so on.

An answer to a Q&A session describes what they're aiming for in more detail - some of what they're doing could be very interesting, but a lot of privacy and online technology groups also have concerns. (What happens for people searching for health related topics, for example?)

Google said:
Specifically, our policies meant that we couldn’t combine data from YouTube and search history with other Google products and services to make them better. So if a user who likes to cook searches for recipes on Google, we are not able to recommend cooking videos when that user visits YouTube, even though he is signed in to the same Google Account when using both.
So, what can you do? 
If you're either concerned about your privacy, or would like to wait and see how this works in practice before you rely on it, here's some things you should consider doing:

(One option is to avoid using Google services at all - but that's hard for a lot of people to do.)

1) Turn off your web history:
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has a guide with illustrations to help you do so. Basically, if you do so, Google will still store a history of your web searches through them - but it will be deleted after 18 months, and be more highly anonymized, and some other kinds of results (like customized search results) will be prevented. The guide has more details on this.

2) Turn off your YouTube history.
Again, the EFF has a guide.

3) Consider other steps to preserve your privacy.
Some of these are more complicated than others. The EFF has a guide that outlines 6 options, ranging from fairly simple to more complicated. 

Steps include (and the guide explains these in more detail):
  • Don't search for personally identifying information (like your name, address, etc.) 
  • Don't use your ISP's search engine to search (since they can connect your internet address with your complete identity pretty easily.) 
  • Use a different web browser to do searches than the one you log into as an individual. (So if you use Firefox to read your email, open up Chrome or Internet Explorer to do a search.). Don't create an account on a search engine to store data or searches.
  • Block cookies from search engines.
  • Vary your IP address (more complicated)
  • Or use anonymizing tools (also more complicated.) 
Other possible tools are out there too:

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