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Google Buzz Raises Privacy and Safety Concerns

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The net is all abuzz about the Buzz service that Google announced today. Perhaps as a response to the success of Twitter and Facebook, Google is allowing Gmail and mobile users to post status updates to share with their friends or the general public.

Cut through the clutter

One potential difference between Google's effort and that of its competitors will be Google's ability to help users distinguish between relevant status updates and all the "noise" one tends to encounter on Twitter and Facebook. By integrating Buzz into Google's popular Gmail email service, the company can triage messages based on what it knows about your relationship with the person. For example, the moment I signed on to Buzz (journalists who attended the announcement were given immediate access, everyone else will get access within the next several days), I was already following several people who I communicate with regularly. But as the people I follow grow in number, the service, according to Google's Todd Jackson, will escalate messages from people it determines I'm interested in.

In a podcast interview I conducted for CNET and CBS News immediately after the announcement, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said that the skill of "extracting signal from noise is one of our key competencies."

Brin said that there are privacy controls built-into both the web and mobile Buzz applications but with the default web interface much of your information is public. For example, if you don't specify that a Buzz should only be seen only by your friends, it could be made available to everyone and indexed by the Google search engine. Like Facebook, Buzz gives you the ability to create lists so you can have a separate Buzz group for your drinking buddies and another one for people at work. However, as with all privacy tools, the key is how you use them. For example, if you send out a Buzz and it's public, the default setting for the next Buzz will also be public. You can change it but I do worry that some people might forget and send the wrong information to the wrong people.

Safety & privacy issues of mobile Buzz

While the web-based service may wind up most popular initially, mobile use of Buzz could be more interesting, and to some extent more troubling.

Mobile Buzz, which will work initially on the Apple iPhone and Google Android phones will take advantage of the phone's GPS capabilities so that users will not only be able to update their status but their location as well. The service will integrate with Google maps, allowing you to easily pinpoint your location. If you're at a business such as a restaurant, it will attempt to locate the place by name and give you a chance to specify your exact location. Using a Droid phone, I tested this feature from a sushi bar in San Francisco and it was able to locate the restaurant by name. Before posting it asked me to verify if that was, indeed, the place I was posting from.

There are controls on whether your geo-location is disclosed but, again, it's up to the user to be careful how they use them. Like the web version, mobile Buzz remembers the last setting so if you send a public post that includes your location, the next post you send will also be public if you fail to click on the "private" link. The link is right there on the screen and easy to find, but if it's set for public and you send out a post and fail to click private, your location could be posted for all to see. Imagine sending a post out to your significant other that you're stuck at work only to accidentally reveal that you're actually located in a romantic restaurant down the street from the office.

Brin said that Buzz "gives you the ability to share where you are with a select group of people and some people can do that publically. It's up to any individual's choice." That, of course, can be a terrific feature. "Let's say you and I decide to get lunch," Brin added, "we don't have to plan that carefully - we can say meet you... and you'll find me. ... that convenience is really great and it transforms how you organize your life." Brin acknowledged that "people need to be thoughtful about with whom they share and for what purpose." But he also said it can enhance safety and security, for example, giving your phone to a child so you can track where he or she is."

ConnectSafely.org, a website I help operate, has advice on cell phone and social mapping safety.

Disclosure: Google is one of several companies that provides financial support to ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit organization I work with.

This post was modified at 8:30 PM Feb 9th to include additional information about mobile privacy settings after hands-on testing.

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