Why I was banned on Google+ (and how I redeemed myself)

A tale of Google's creepy privacy behavior and how the search giant may be blowing it on its best social networking success to date.

I was as surprised to learn last week that my Google+ account had been banned as I was to learn a few weeks ago that I had a Google+ account. After some effort on my part, as of today, my name is now acceptable to Google and my fledgling Plus account is up and running. But three editors here have already had creepy or frustrating situations with Google+, and other ways that Google is matching our names to our public data. It's making me wonder if Google can be trusted at all, let alone trusted more than Facebook.

SEE GOOGLE'S EXPLANATION: Google explains its data correlation privacy settings

UPDATED 07/26: What I'm about to share is the ultimate in creepy Google stories. One editor opened up a Google+ account to explore it as part of her job as a technology reporter. When it asked for her phone number, she put in her business phone number. Google+ rejected the phone number. It then initiated an automated phone call TO HER HOME NUMBER. That phone call asked her to verify her plus account.

UPDATED 07/27: Is Google matching our names with public telephone records and helping itself to correlations that we did not authorize -- or even know -- it was making? Google claims it is not and that this phone call was a result of the editor at some point signing up for its ""Two-step verification" service.

Here's another creepy story from another Network World editor. For a few months, whenever this editor used Google search, Google would show him relevant tweets from people he was following on his Twitter account within search results. But, he never actually gave Google his Twitter handle. In fact, it would always ask him to verify his Twitter name even as it served up the Tweets. Google was guessing about his Twitter identity, probably using the fact that the editor gave Twitter his Gmail account. Google saw messages from that Twitter account coming into his Gmail, correlated the two and started serving up unasked for Tweets. Yes, Google is correlating your Google profile with data from public social networks. You must opt out if you want it to cut it out. See screen shot below for details.   

As for my story, a couple of weeks ago I fired up my Gmail and noticed my name with a little "plus" sign at the top. It turns out it was a Google+ account and Google had filled what it could of my public profile with the data I had shared when I tried out Buzz. This was not my full real name but the name I had been using with all my Google accounts. No one I knew was on Plus yet, so a few days later, I returned, found a few co-workers and tried to post a "hello world" status update. I got an error message. The message didn't tell me I was banned ... it simply said that it couldn't post my status at this time and I should try again later. Which I did, several times ... to the same effect.

After trying everything I could think of, I thought Plus was either ridiculously hard to use or just plain broken (when in truth, the answer was neither, as my account had been suspended).

A few days later, when it still wasn't fixed, I tried to update my profile and when I hit save, I was finally told what the problem was. It didn't like my name. I was told the account was being investigated for possible violations for Google's profile policies. So, being told what the problem was at last, I entered my full real name and I was told to check back. So I did, day after day last week.

I finally sent Google a feedback form, showing it my name and telling it that I was not violating its policies. That did the trick.

On Monday, my account was working.

Updated 07/27: So I posted a photo. I was horrified to discover that although I had set the privacy settings on my photos to default to be visible only to specific circles, the photo was marked as publicly visible. No amount of searching or clicking would get Google to declare that photo not public. I was even more horrified to discover that the photo somehow geolocated itself to the exact location it was taken ... which is amazingly creepy as it was taken on a trail in a state park on the iPhone of a friend and sent as a text to my Android phone. It was edited (cropped) on my computer, and saved in a new file and that file was uploaded from my computer, not from my Android phone. Geotagging info that I never wanted to share apparently remained intact to broadcast itself on a public photo that I wanted to share only with my Circles. Google PR walked me through three places where a geolocation privacy setting could affect a Google+ photo. Although these were all turned off on my account, turning them on/off and resaving my profiles and Picasa account settings allowed me to upload the same photo again without location data publicly showing. I've documented where the settings are here.

Granted, Google+ is still in beta. But Google, if you are going to ban people for not using their real names, do your fair part and make this privacy maze easier to use.

Yes, my Google+ picture settings are locked down to exclude revealing geotagging. I wound up deleting the photo.

I have searched Google's privacy policies and this is what it says about correlating the data you share with it with data from other resources (emphasis mine).

“Personal information” is information that you provide to us which personally identifies you, such as your name, email address or billing information, or other data which can be reasonably linked to such information by Google."

While Google lets you fine tune data about you that it shares with others, the only off switch I could find on what it collects about you from other data sources was tucked inside Google+ part of the Profile page under "Account Settings/Connected Accounts."

This privacy setting may get Google to stop tracking so much about you. Click to enlarge image.

To be sure Facebook is no giant friend to privacy either. As far as social networks go, there are a lot of features I like about Google+ over Facebook, just like there are a lot of features I like about the other Google services I use. But with Google insisting on full real names, and backing that up by suspending accounts, experiences like these make me nervous as to how much data Google is gathering attached to each of its users, individually.

To say Google is watching is the understatement of the decade. It seems it is not only watching, it is correlating.

Here are some sources to help you see what Google is collecting on you via its own services, and with whom it is sharing this data. Your browser must be logged into your Google account for some of the links below to work.

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