View Full Version : Google Privacy Blunders, Google+ Email Panic

03-24-2014, 02:06 PM
If there's one company that ought to know how people behave on the internet, it's Google. That's basically the company's raison d'etre: its search results are sorted so they're as useful as they can possibly be; its Gmail service has one of the best spam filters around and can even remind users when they've forgotten to attach the important document they meant to send; and Drive is set up to make online collaboration between colleagues as straightforward as possible. Much of Google's success is down to the company's ability to figure out what people want and give them services that do that, as simply as possible.

However, despite its apparent talent for anticipating and supplying features people will love even before they've realized they want them, Google has made a lot of mistakes in its time. And one area in which the company seems to keep messing up is user privacy. Over the last few years, there have been several controversies over Google products that showed Google didn't quite have a handle on what its users were willing to share...


Google+ Email Panic
The latest privacy problem concerns Google's social network, Google+. If you haven't used it, it's basically a Facebook style interface, where you can sort your friends or acquaintances into 'Circles' and then share content (pictures, status updates, videos and so on) with them accordingly. Actually, it's been praised in the past for its privacy-friendly setup, which makes it easy to share certain things with some people and not others without having to delve too deeply into any complex settings.

Recently, though, Google changed something in Google+. By integrating it more closely with Gmail, Google made it possible for Google+ users to email one another - even if they'd never exchanged email addresses.That might not sound too worrying, until you realize that Google+ Circles aren't necessarily reciprocal. You can add anyone you like to your Google+ Circles. So with Google's shiny new Google+s feature, anyone on Google+ can now email anyone else on Google+.


That's potentially a bit of a nightmare. Many of us deliberately don't make our email addresses public so only people we know and like can email us, but if you're on Google+s, it doesn't matter how guarded you are, because anyone else on the service can email you just by clicking on your name. Happily, there is a way to turn this feature off: click into your Gmail settings, and under the General heading, you'll find a section titled Email via Google+. By default, it's set to allow anyone on Google+ to email you, but you can change it to only allow people in your Extended Circles or Circles to email you, or you can turn it off completely.
The feature hasn't rolled out to everyone yet, and if you're a Google+ user you should get an email from Google letting you know when they're switching it
on, so you can turn it off again then. The amount of attention and hand-wringing this change inspired might seem a bit disproportionate, considering the
email function is so easy to turn off, but it's a symptom of something bigger, a general distrust in Google to treat its users' details properly. After all, it isn't the first time something like this has happened .

Buzz Off
Remember Google Buzz? You might not. Google's last social networking effort was pretty short-lived, launching in February 2010 and being closed down less than two years later, in December 2011. It was similar to Google+ in many ways: it was meant to be a network where you could easily choose which of your contacts to share things with, so you could use it to communicate with friends and work colleague use without ending up with inappropriate crossovers. And it, too, was integrated with other Google services. When users signed up with GMail addresses, their contacts - everyone they'd ever emailed or who had ever emailed them - were automatically imported and displayed as a public friends' list.

In theory, that was super convenient, because users didn't have to go through the process of adding everyone they knew individually. In practice, it was a terrible idea, because not everyone who's ever emailed you is your friend, and not everyone who you've ever emailed wants to be displayed as your friend.


To make matters worse, Google decided that Buzz should also be integrated with its now defunct RSS reader, Google Reader. Users who were added as Buzz contacts could now see one another's Reader feeds, including any notes they'd made on articles they'd read. It's obvious there's some potential for embarrassment there, as previously private content became public through Buzz, but in some circumstances, it was worse than that. A blog post by Harriet Jacobs in which she described how Buzz had revealed her personal information to her abusive ex-husband quickly went viral, and Google had to do some quick reparation work to change how contacts were added and what information was public by default.

Obviously, Jacobs was in a particularly difficult situation, and not everyone is going to have similar issues, but now Google has done something similar with Google+. Itís starting to seem like there's a very real problem with Google not taking into account what real people will want from its services. Auto-importing of contacts sounds like a great idea and a hugely convenient one, but it fails to take into account that not everyone wants to be completely open with everyone they've ever emailed.

When Privacy is Important
Google's constant pushing of Google+ might just be awkward or annoying for most of us, but it bears repeating that sometimes it can cause actual harm. Under Android 4.4, text messaging has become integrated with Google's Hangouts; just like iPhone users can exchange iMessages rather that text messages, Android them as SMS messages.

That's fine, but it does mean if you send someone a message through Hangouts, they'll receive a message linked to your Google+ profile rather than from your phone number. That happened to a trans woman in the US (who's asked to remain anonymous) and meant she was accidentally outed to a colleague - just because she'd sent a text message from her Android phone. It's another 'feature' that Android users might not be aware of, and there are likely to be plenty of people who might not want their social networking profiles accidentally revealed to their contacts.

Every time something like this happens, it causes a brief flurry of attention and an apology from Google with a promise to do better in future, but a few months later, something similar seems to happen again.

And Google services are becoming ever more integrated into our daily lives; many of us already use Chrome as our main web browser and Android as our mobile operating system, which means Google has access to a lot of information about us. It often uses it to help make our lives easier, by personal using search results or using our locations and habits to make recommendations and be helpful.

However, there's also something a bit creepy about how much Google services know about us and how much they can anticipate our actions - especially if we can't be completely sure it's going to keep our private information private. The biggest Google-related privacy concern on the horizon right now is Google Glass, of course. Privacy campaigners have already warned that widespread adoption of the wearables will mean the end of any expectation of privacy anywhere other than inside your own home.

Remember when everyone got a bit freaked out about Street View letting anyone and everyone take a virtual wander down your street? If Google isn't careful. Itís going to find that a lot of people are very, very scared of Glass and fear isn't really a good way of marking your tech products.

Why Does This Keep Happening?
Over the past few years, we've all taken to sharing various aspects of ourselves with the online world, but we've all also become increasingly aware that doing so might affect us further down the line. We want to be able to decide what we share and with whom, and we want our online services to be clear and up-front about what information they're collecting about us and what they're using it for.

Unfortunately, what companies usually want us to do is give them our data so they can build a detailed profile of our interests to more accurately target advertising at us. Since Google offers so many useful services, most of us probably use at least one Google product every day, so the company's in a position to know more about us than most.

Despite all that knowledge, though, it doesn't seem to be able to balance making useful and profitable products with keeping users feeling safe and happy. Once upon a time, Google seemed like everyone's favorite tech company, everyone's best online friend, but that might be a thing of the past unless the company can learn to treat its users like human beings rather than information clusters.