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5 key points from Google's privacy-policy letter to Congress

Search giant responds to congressional queries about privacy policy in 13-page letter

By Brad Reed, Network World
January 31, 2012 03:13 PM ET

Network World - Google sent a 13-page letter to Congress this week that can be summarized in a single sentence: "We're not being evil."

In a wide-ranging letter addressed to eight U.S. representatives, Google defended the changes it plans to implement in its privacy policies and said that users who want their data kept separate from multiple Google services have nothing to fear as long as they take the correct precautions.

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In the interest of saving you the time of reading the entire 13-page document yourself, we've broken down Google's letter to Congress into five main points that will be most relevant to its defense should it face a congressional inquiry over the next year.

Point No. 1: Google still isn't selling your personal data.

How many times can Google find different ways to tell Congress that it isn't selling users' personal data to interested parties? Let's see: "We are not selling our users' data." "We do not sell users' personally identifiable information." "Google does not sell, trade or rent personally identifiable user information."

You get the idea. While Google has long tracked users and has delivered targeted ads to them based on keywords they use frequently, the company is not, repeat, not selling your information to third-party marketers who can target you with their own ads. So if you're worried about multiple marketing firms learning about your somewhat creepy obsession with My Little Pony, for instance, you don't need to worry about it.

Point No. 2: You're still up the creek if you get reeled in by a phishing scam.

Citing an attempt by hackers to access White House staffers' Gmail accounts last year, Congress has asked Google if it is taking any new security steps to protect all the information that is now shared across Gmail, Google's search engine and YouTube. Google basically responds by saying, "Not really."

Basically, if you compromise your Gmail account by falling for a phishing scandal and you haven't already turned on Google's two-step verification tool, then hackers will potentially have access not just to your Gmail but to your Google account as a whole. In other words, if you're getting ads in your Gmail inbox that are based on frequent searches you've been doing, a smart hacker will likely be able to figure out what you've been searching for. Said hacker will also have access to your Google+ and YouTube accounts as well if you haven't set up separate accounts for each of them.

The lesson here, folks, is to be really, really careful when you sign into your Gmail account because it's not just your Gmail information that hackers could potentially swipe anymore.

Point No. 3: You can still use Google and YouTube for searching without Google knowing that you are the one doing the search.

One of the main objections that critics of Google's new policy has been that many users may not want to see ads in their Gmail inboxes for things they search for on Google's main search engine or on YouTube. But there's a fairly simple way around this, Google says: Sign out of your Gmail account before you do any searching.

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