Google’s plan to collapse 60 privacy policies into a single one and combine information it collects about its users has sparked outcry among privacy advocates and scrutiny from lawmakers around the world. Privacy experts have slammed the approach as “frustrating,” “a little frightening,” and even “illegal.”
“Users are not likely to see any difference actually because most of what Google is doing they have been always able to do,” said Jules Polonetsky, director of the think tank Future of Privacy Forum. “They were already tracking, personalizing, and tailoring profiles for users based on the different things that you did. There now will be some more data that will be available to do this.”
Merging information gleaned across multiple services isn’t anything new for Google. A Google spokesman noted, “Privacy policies for a long time now have allowed us to combine information that’s associated with a particular Google account.”
But the policy being introduced Thursday will help Google develop richer profiles of its users, cobbled together from data about what videos they’ve watched on YouTube, what their Gmail emails say, what searches they perform and which topics they follow on Google+. Rather than keeping information about your Gmail usage separate from specifics on what you write about on Blogger, Google will pull all of those details together. All Google users will also be required to submit to the new terms, a fact that has privacy advocates up in arms.
Though Google has cast the changes as a benefit to users, saying they will enjoy a "beautifully simple" experience, the ability to piece together more information about users’ activities online will ultimately prove a boon to Google as it challenges other web companies, such as Facebook, in a war over advertising dollars and users’ time.
“The privacy changes are taking place in the midst of a data arms race between Facebook, Google and other companies in the space,” said Alan Simpson, vice president of policy for Common Sense Media, an advocacy group for Internet safety issues. “They’re all working to gather as much data and personal information as they can and figuring out ways that they will use our data to develop a better advertising market.”
Google noted in a video introducing the privacy changes that by sharing more information across its products, the company could deliver “more accurate spelling suggestions because you’ve typed a word before” or “tell you when you’ll be late for a meeting based on your location, calendar and local traffic conditions.”
“The companies in this space all talk in terms of the potential positive, and there are quite a few potential positives,” Simpson said. “There might well be innovations that come out of this that improve Google search, but what we don’t know is how this will impact the way data is being used. “
Privacy experts also fear that the new policy could encourage Google rivals, which are likewise hungry for users’ personal information, to take an even more aggressive stance toward the collection of personal details and continue chipping away at people’s privacy online.
“Companies keep saying ‘this is the standard’ because they all keep moving the goal post, and every time they move the goal post, everyone jumps up and does the same thing,” said Chet Wisniewski, a security adviser at Sophos. “At some point, you’ve gone too far.”
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