Google's new cross-service info sharing: Why the hubbub?

Google says it wants to improve your Web experience, critics see an information-tracking monolith

How you feel about Google's newest information-sharing policy all boils down to how comfortable you are with Google knowing your every move online.

How you feel about Google's newest information-sharing policy all boils down to how comfortable you are with Google following your every move online.

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Think that's an exaggeration? Consider a user who has a Gmail account, who looks for videos on YouTube and who uses Google as their primary search engine. Under the previous rules, Google would present advertisements for users in their Gmail accounts based on frequently-found keywords found throughout emails. Under the new arrangement, Gmail users will see advertisements based on frequently used search keywords, whether they come from users' Google or YouTube searches.

For its part, Google says this new information sharing will improve Google users' online lives in a few key ways. First, it will consolidate Google's privacy policies from a whopping 70 down to a more manageable number. Second it will provide users with more relevant advertisements than if Google had just simply given users ads based on their email keywords or search keywords by themselves. And finally, it will let Google better integrate its services to, say, send you a notification that you're late for a meeting if Google's location data shows that you're significantly far away from where your meeting is due to take place.

Google also says it still does not sell personal information, nor does it share it externally without users' permission unless compelled by a court order. Google also says that users will still be able to use their Ad Preferences Manager to stop Google from sending them certain unwanted advertisements. And of course, users will still be able to use Google's Data Liberation website to remove all their data from Google products if they so choose.

Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says Google's new policies are essentially just natural expansions from its current data tracking policies and notes that the major difference here is that Google is tearing down some of the walls of separation between its own services.

"It has always been the case that Google kept effectively linkable records of our uses of Gmail, Search, Maps and Market for Android, and other services," she says. "In a couple of cases, Google had some internal practices of not linking your browsing history and YouTube history, to other data -- and those internal walls at the company are now gone."

So what's the fuss about? In the first place, many privacy advocates have expressed concern that Google users can't opt out of the policy if they don't want their information shared across services. Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, for instance, wrote in a blog post Tuesday that the "lack of opt-out means users cannot pick and choose which data they want integrated into their Google profiles."

"Private email messages might contain any number of personal, embarrassing or otherwise damaging information," Blumenthal wrote. "Google's attempts to amplify and contextualize this information through targeted ads, maps suggestions or calendar reminders could have negative consequences for users."

Cohn also says she's troubled that Google users can't create anonymous identities on Google services if they want to keep their anonymity online and not have Google know what they're doing through all facets of the Web.

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"If you're in the United States or Europe and you're worried about a government investigation of your email or search history, Google is not such a safe place for it," she says. "The answer should be that Google lets us create truly separate identities on these services."

Another concern is that users may not want to have data from their emails - which are often very private - amplified on other Google web pages. For example, let's say that you're due for heart surgery and you've been emailing frequently with friends, family and doctors about it in an attempt to get both information and moral support for what you expect will be a trying ordeal. Do you really want to go to your YouTube page and all of a sudden see that Gmail has recommended a bunch of videos of open-heart surgery?

"I consider information... to be like pieces of rock in a mosaic," explains Pete Hickey, Information Systems Security Officer at the University of Ottawa. "Individually, each little piece doesn't mean much, but when you get enough and put them in the right places a nice picture emerges. Consider for example, Google Analytics. A large number of web sites use this, because it provides the developers free statistics on users of their web site. It also provides Google with information that you have been to that web site... a non-Google site. Their maps are the same thing. A site using Google Maps to show their location provides Google with information about you."

The Atlantic's Sara Marie Watson writes that one consequence of Google's new cross-platform information sharing is that users might be more careful in the future sharing their information exclusively over Google since they may not want the company to keep track of everything they do online. The trouble is, she says, that Google's multiple services have already become integral parts of surfing the Web, making breaking away from them a difficult endeavor.

"Personally, I'm inspired to find ways of disentangling myself from my complete and utter reliance on Google products," she writes. "It's the kick in the pants I needed to export my bookmarks and switch back to Firefox as my default browser. And perhaps I'll start uploading new pictures to Flickr... But I'll admit, I won't be giving up Gmail or moving my searches over to Bing anytime soon. I'm not calling for a boycott by any means, I'm just looking for a little more critical public discourse on our data."

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