Google's all-seeing eye: Good or bad for users?

Google’s plan to begin tracking users across almost all of its services promises more precise search results, targeted ads and helpful scheduling tips to individuals, but it also has privacy advocates a little nervous about the Big Brother aspects of an all-seeing Googley eye.

On March 1, the Web giant will combine tracking for Gmail, YouTube, Calendar, Docs, Google +, search, maps and other services, putting user information — a lot of which Google already had — into one database and treating each user as one individual across those sites. Only the Chrome browser, Google Books and Google Wallet aren’t included.

The hitch is that you can’t opt out, other than by closing your Google account.

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Privacy advocates and some lawmakers are raising questions about the implications of all that user information in one place, as well as the lack of an opt-out choice. Google says, however, that it is meeting regulators’ calls for simpler privacy policies by combining more than 60 separate policies for its products into one governing most of its services.

Some industry observers have noted that, by combining its heretofore disparate products, the company could be trying to catch up with Apple and Facebook in offering users a unified experience.

The change, whose benefits primarily seem to be consumer-oriented, also could have an impact on organizations that have adopted the increasing popular Google Apps office suite. The General Services Administration and a number of other federal, state and local organizations have made the switch over the past year.

The idea behind the plan is to create a “beautifully simple, intuitive user experience across Google,” Alma Whitten, the company’s director of privacy, product and engineering, wrote in a blog post:

For example, Whitten wrote, “We can make search better — figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink,”  determining whether a user is looking for fruit or computers, cars or cats, colors or singers, depending on their other activities.

So, presumably, for the search term “Patriot,” someone who watches video clips of NLF games might see Tom Brady, while someone who writes about American History might get Paul Revere. Advertisements delivered to a user’s desktop would follow suit, perhaps serving up beer in one case and books in the other.

Whitten said Google will be able to deliver other helpful tips, too. “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,” she wrote.

The tracking could also improve Google’s spelling suggestions for such things as friends’ names, since the users have typed them before, she said.

Privacy watchers, however, are somewhat skeptical.

"Google's new privacy announcement is frustrating and a little frightening," James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, said in a statement reported by AdWeek. "Even if the company believes that tracking users across all platforms improves their services, consumers should still have the option to opt out, especially the kids and teens who are avid users of YouTube, Gmail, and Google search."

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) issued a statement saying the new policy “raises important questions about how much control Google users will have over their personal information. … [I]t is imperative that users will be able to decide whether they want their information shared across the spectrum of Google’s offerings.”

Markey said he plans to evaluate the policy to ensure privacy.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a blog post that he was concerned that people with smart phones running Google’s Android operating system won’t even have the option of closing their Google  accounts, since they have to sign in to do anything other than Web browsing and making phone calls.

“The lack of opt-out means users cannot pick and choose which data they want integrated into their Google profiles” Blumenthal’s blog states. He cited the potential dangers of combining private details in e-mails with targeted ads and calendar reminders. “These harmful impacts could range from the inconvenient (spoiling a surprise party) to the truly harmful (popping up a calendar reminder about an evening job interview while you’re at work).”

Scrutiny from Washington over privacy isn’t something new for Google.

It reached a settlement recently with the Federal Trade Commission over complaints that it allowed users of its short-lived Google Buzz social networking site to see e-mail contacts lists, the Washington Post reported. It also is being investigated over whether its search results favor Google products over other companies’.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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