Google privacy changes not all bad: Privacy Commissioner

Google's aim to make its private policy simpler and clearer is a move in the right direction, says Shroff

Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff sees both positive and negative aspects to the major changes in Google's privacy policy due to take effect on March 1.

It's good that Google is rationalising what have been as many as 60 different privacy policies for its various services, she has told Computerworld.

"Google's aim of making their privacy policies simpler and clearer is a move in the right direction. We have encouraged Google to go down that track and have said how important it is for privacy policies to be readily understandable and as clear as possible. If these changes do that, then that is a good thing for Google users."

However, Google has also made it plain that it will increase linkage of a single user identity across its services. It presents this as offering the user, in its words, "one beautifully simple and intuitive experience". In practice, it means results from the mainstream user search engine could be tailored according to your interests as expressed by what you watch on YouTube or vice-versa -- or the interests evident from the emails you send in Gmail.

This aspect does give cause for concern, says Shroff; "it means the ground is shifting for Google account holders."

Only recently, as a result of a spate of media articles and blogs, have many Google search-engine users become aware that the results they get are already tailored to what Google understands as their interests and tastes or philosophical/political point of view, based on such factors as their search and browsing history. This has been going on, to some extent, since late 2009, but the new links mean it will intensify and have led to accusations of censorship. Search results are also tailored to reflect the user's location.

"Users need to be aware that Google's business model relies on being able to deliver targeted advertising and that user demographic data provides the raw fuel [for this]," says Shroff. "That exists under the current model and is extended by the new plans.

"Google account holders might want to look again at their privacy settings in tools like Google Dashboard and change those if they want more privacy," she suggests -- advice given by Google itself in notices prominently displayed on its sites.

Some users may choose to go further, creating "pseudonymous, separate, online profiles", the Privacy Commissioner says. "I will continue to keep track of these changes and the impact that they may have on user privacy."

However, a "real-names" policy declared last year for the Google+ social networking tool has been criticised as making pseudonymity in the Google universe more difficult. Google objected to the use of identifiers that did not look like personal names.

"For people who don't have Google accounts (eg Google+, Reader, Gmail etc) there is probably little difference [in the effect of the new policies]," Shroff concludes.

In 2010, following an investigation by the Privacy Commissioner's office, Google apologised to New Zealanders for collecting wi-fi data through its StreetView mapping vehicles.

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