Google to combine users' data across its services

Rewritten privacy policies allow Google to use data in a variety of services if a Google Accounts user is signed in

Google will be able to combine data from several Google services when a Google Accounts user is signed in, as part of a rewritten set of privacy policies that the company announced on Tuesday.

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Google said it added the new capability so it can provide better and more targeted services. For example, by combining information from Google Calendar and Google Maps, the company could deliver reminders of a scheduled meeting that take into account how far the user is from the meeting location and how the traffic is on the way, said Alma Whitten, Google's director of privacy product and engineering, in a blog post on Tuesday.

The changes will take effect on March 1, and Google said it was starting to inform users about them via email and a homepage notice. They are included in a major update of Google's privacy policies that, among other things, will consolidate the policies for a majority of Google products into one policy. Taking more than 70 privacy documents, Google has combined more than 60 of them into that main policy, Whitten wrote. Google also said it has cut down on the Google Terms of Service and made them easier to read.

"We believe this new, simpler policy will make it easier for people to understand our privacy policies as well as enable Google to improve the services we offer," Whitten wrote. In addition, she said governments have called for shorter and simpler privacy rules, she wrote.

The new policy, a preview of which appears here, is a significant revision from the current one, said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit public-interest research group in San Diego.

"This is a different privacy policy," Dixon said. "It's finally a bit clearer about what they are doing. I think they're making more admissions." For example, the new policy says more about collecting and using mobile device information, including cellphone numbers. While Google's previous policy might have been legally defensible, this one is more useful for consumers, she said.

Privacy is a touchy issue for Internet-based services as they collect growing amounts of information about users. Google Buzz, the ill-fated predecessor to the company's recently introduced Google+ social networking service, drew fire for the way in which the company shared information and notified users about how it had shared.

Whitten pointed to the recently introduced "Search, plus Your World" feature as an example of combining information across services. Rolled out earlier this month, it lets Google Accounts users see posts from Google+ friends and other personal sources in the results of a search from Google's home page.

Other possible enhancements include more relevant search results and ads based on personal history. For example, Google could leave out fitness ads when delivering ads to a Google Accounts user who isn't "a gym person," Whitten wrote. Google services could also give spelling suggestions that take into account the spelling of the Google user's friends' names.

"In short, we'll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience," Whitten wrote.

Google Accounts users may want to be cautious about the company combining information from multiple services, Dixon of World Privacy Forum said. "This is a very broad statement, and it can mean so many different things," she said.

The main reason for concern about that data being combined is the possibility of Google being subpoenaed for information in a criminal case or civil lawsuit, Dixon said. "You may consider segregating your search at this point," and doing Google searches while not logged into a Google Account, she advised. Dixon would like to see Google provide a mechanism for users to opt out of the data combining.

In the blog post, Google said it still won't sell users' personal information or share it outside the company, except in rare cases such as being presented with a court order. Google said users will still be able to turn off Google ads altogether through its Ad Preferences Manager.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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