Google explains its data correlation privacy settings

Google says it wants to link you to your other social media accounts, but not your phone number.

In response to my blog post about how Google seems to be gathering pubic data about people and correlating it with their Google user names, Google has offered some explanations. A company spokesperson told me that the search giant is not looking at public phone directories to match phone numbers with user names. But it is looking through social media sites to correlate those accounts to your Google user name and profile.

I reported on several strange experiences Network World editors had as a result of signing up for Google+ or using Google search. READ THAT POST FIRST if you want to understand this one better.

One editor was surprised to see that Google was showing him Tweets from his Twitter feed, and asking if this Twitter account was his, whenever he used the search engine. Yes, Google is searching through social media correlating your other accounts to match them with your Google account.

This was a modification made in February to Google's two-year old Social Search app. "In the past, a user had to create a Google profile and explicitly and public connect other online accounts. In February, our algorithms began automatically suggesting accounts to connect and giving people the choice to confirm or decline," explains a Google spokesperson.

If you are signed into Google and using search, Google looks at Twitter and other public accounts and tries to match you based on your Gmail name and your contacts. It doesn't ask you to opt in. If you want it to quit correlating you can opt out. That is the setting I profiled in the previous post. Here is again.

By far the creepiest tale was the one where my colleague received a call on her home phone after Google rejected her business phone number when she was filling out a profile for Google+. While Google is correlating data from social media accounts, Google is not searching through phone records, Google PR says.

However, Google does have a couple of services that will call you on your phone. These do require that you set them up and give Google your phone number. "Two-step verification" is one of those and this system sounds closest to what this editor experienced. This is a Google security setting on your profile. It sends a text or initiates a voice call to a landline or mobile phone to give a second password authorization code that will let a user make changes to accounts or services. When my colleague tried to set up a Google+ account using her business phone number, it sounds as if it triggered the two-step verification and (somehow) made a call to her home phone. Oddly, Google had never called her before. The details are still a little fuzzy as to how it got her home phone number. Google PR says she must have given it to Google at some point. She was surprised by the call. Google also has a service associated with Gmail and Google Apps where Google will call a phone number and ask for authorization to verify an account.

As for my photo that showed up as a public photo with geotagging information, Google PR walked me through three spots where a user can opt in/out of showing location data. All of them were set to not show location data, and I left the conversation feeling as if the Google+ beta code may have a bug involving some iPhone photos -- which are encoded with geotagging info in meta data and that meta data travels with the photo from device to device to cloud.

One spot is on the Google+ account. While in Google+, click on the gear symbol next to your name on the right-hand corner of the browser. Uncheck "Show photo geo location information in newly uploaded albums and photos." (If you are logged into Google+ this link should take you there.)

Another spot is in Picasa, Google's photo storage/sharing service. Google+ is linked to Picasa, so when you upload a photo, that's where it is stored. I have a Picasa account. While in Picasa click on the gear wheel icon/Photos settings/Privacy and Permissions. (If you are logged in, this link should take you there). Uncheck the first two boxes:


A third spot is in Picasa at the albums level. Click on an album. If location info is stored with the picture, uncheck the box under the map that says:

After checking and unchecking all of these boxes and resaving all of my profiles, I then uploaded the same photo. I was able to share it only with a specific circle and it was NOT at this time showing any location data.

I'm not sure the average person would be able to navigate that on their own. I urge Google to centralize and correlate geolocation settings among Google+ and Picasa so that all such settings are far more easily located.

The takeaway is that navigating Google's many privacy settings is difficult, perhaps even insane, especially for a service that is banning people if they don't use their real names. Google can't claim to be better than Facebook on that count.

One final thing ... commenters on my earlier blog post seemed confused by this blog's name. This is a blog, written by a Network World editor, that typically covers issues of interest to Microsoft users. I am an employee of Network World not Microsoft. This blog is part of a microsite on Network World called Microsoft Subnet. Microsoft Subnet is a collection of blogs, written by journalists and technology experts, about Microsoft technologies and other topics of interest to IT professionals. None of us work for Microsoft in the same way that your local newspaper is not working for the government when it publishes articles about the government.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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