When you need to look something up, do you Google it? Do you enjoy watching cat videos on You Tube? Do you hang out with friends on Google+? Have a Gmail account?
If so, you need to understand that beginning March 1 all of the information that Google collects about you on each of those sites will be combined into one uber-database. Google says this change to its private policy is designed to give you a better user experience. Critics say it's just a way for Google to learn more about you, so it can bombard you with targeted ads.
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Google maintains that its privacy principles remain unchanged and that it does not sell its users personal information or share it without their permission (outside of a valid legal request such as a court order).
In a recent blog post, Betsy Masiello, Policy Manager at Google, says, "Our privacy controls have not changed. Period. Our users can: edit and delete their search history; edit and delete their YouTube viewing history; use many of our services signed in or out; use Google Dashboard and our Ads Preferences Manager to see what data we collect and manage the way it is used; plus take advantage of our data liberation efforts, if they want to remove information from our services."
According to Google, tracking data has been common practice since Gmail's introduction in 2004. The only real change, says Google, is that now, this practice is spread across all of its services. (Watch a slideshow of how to protect your online privacy.)
Here's what you need to know about Google's privacy policies:
1. When you apply for a Google account, Google requests your name, email address, phone number and, possibly, credit card information for your Google Profile. You can avoid exposing your publicly visible profile by omitting or fabricating this information.
However, if you provide any credit card information, your personal data can be extracted from the credit card's authorization and verification process, which supplies Google an accurate, updated profile. If you are using a fee-based Google service, consider using an alternate form of payment or remember to indicate that the physical mailing address is different from the billing address. This will not, however, protect your real name.
2. If you have created multiple identities to remain anonymous (for whatever reasons), Google can attach your single profile to all of its services replacing all your pseudonyms with one profile account. If you prefer to remain anonymous, either don't supply any profile information (especially a photo) or provide different, unique information for each pseudonym.
3. Google's databases are collecting information from your searches when using this search engine and/or YouTube, plus keywords in your Gmails. And even though Google claims that this information is not person specific, per se; that is, your name is not attached to the database, which says you visited 50 websites last week that sell T-shirts or 26 YouTube sites with Valentine videos, it is compiling a "user preference" profile about you. That profile determines what advertisements Google sends to your screen while surfing the Internet, browsing YouTube, or checking your messages in Gmail.
You can certainly delete your browsing and/or YouTube history through Google's Dashboard or with your browser software (e.g., Internet Explorer), but these options do not remove this collected information from Google's databases on its servers. To avoid this "Big Brother Is Watching" scrutiny, either don't log in to Google or use a different search engine such as Yahoo or Bing. Since YouTube has no real clones, your only option is just not to log in.
4. Google also identifies and collects your device data such as hardware, software, operating system, version numbers, IP address, and cell phone network information, including your phone number. This data can help pinpoint your location, which helps advertisers target specific markets. The bad news is that a determined stalker, identity thief, or cyber criminal can get at this personal information.
You can buy software that will either scramble your IP address or provide a fake IP address every time you log on to any service. This will keep your location private for connections through a personal computer. Your mobile phone; however, has multiple tracking devices including your phone number, your address book, your wireless carrier, etc. If you desire or require privacy protection, choose another search engine and online mail service for your cell phone because Google can and will connect your cell phone data to your online profile.
5. Google Logs contain unique application numbers, cookies, history, browser types and versions, and device events such as system crashes, activity, and hardware settings. It's likely that all search engines, in addition to several other software and hardware manufacturers, collect this information. Most people don't know this and probably wouldn't care unless, someday, it appears as public information on the Internet.
So, if they are all doing it, how can you opt out? Usually, you can't. Some companies may offer limited options for opting out of some features, but mining data for advertising dollars won't be one of them. And know this, they are all tracking us in one way or another. Your only choices are those already mentioned; that is, use pseudonyms, fabricated data, software that scrambles your IP address, refuse to log in, or don't use these services.
6. Everyone should check the Google Dashboard to see how and what Google is exposing online about you. Google advertises several processes to manage some of the information about you on the Internet including Data Liberation, Me On the Web, Incognito in Chrome (if you use Chrome), and Turn Off Search History Personalization, but these options are complicated and somewhat limited . Go here for details and/or this link for Google's Privacy Tools.
There is also an add-on software called Google Analytics Opt-out Browser Add-on (Beta version) that you can install, which allows users some choices regarding how their data is collected by Google Analytics. Considering the minimal airplay of this option and that it's a Beta version, it's unlikely that many will choose this alternative.
Sartain is the author of "Data Networks 101" and a freelance journalist from Salt Lake City, Utah. She can be reached at email@example.com.