Google and Privacy

A review of recent changes to Google’s privacy policy

Google LogoOn Thursday 1st March Google made some changes to their privacy policy and although they’ve done a lot to forewarn the public, the changes are so controversial that they are being legally challenged in some countries. This post takes a look at what the changes mean to you and what to do about them…

Before we begin here’s a link to Google’s privacy policy if you’d like to read it for yourself. The big change they’ve made that’s causing a stir is they will be amalgamating all data that they gather from or about you from any of their services that you use. This includes not only websites that have the Google name on them like Search, Mail, Maps, Documents, Reader, and so on, but also Google owned websites like Youtube.

This extends beyond just websites too, including Android mobile phones and the Google Chrome web browser. It will also include Google partners and services that might not be immediately obvious and which might be used on any website, services like Google Analytics or DoubleClick. Your web browser might even be sending information to Google about every website that you visit.

Why are they doing this? Their pitch is that it allows them to provide a more joined up suite of services with cross overs and compliments. In the background it means they can produce more targeted adverts for which they’ll be able to charge advertisers a higher premium.

Example 1: If you’re browsing TripAdvisor.co.uk for restaurants in London and then browse Youtube you might see adverts or recommended videos related to London tourist attractions.

Example 2: If you’re browsing Parkers.co.uk then Google know you’re more likely to respond to adverts for new cars so they can charge Ford or Vauxhall more than they could for anonymous distribution.

While there are undoubtedly some benefits in this joined up thinking it is also a little spooky that any one organisation can know so much about you, they probably know more about you than some of your friends and colleagues. The ways in which this could go wrong are too numerous to list; you probably browse different subjects while you’re at work to while you’re at home, Google might end up recommending accountancy training seminars while you’re planning a debaucherous weekend in Amsterdam, or vice versa!

If you don’t want this level of tracking then Google say you can choose to not use their services or simply sign out. Unfortunately for the first suggestion, as with many of the other sudo-monopolies, Google have become a huge company because their products are good no matter how much you might want to hate them.

As for the second suggestion, studies have shown that even without any personal identifiers like a username, a person browsing the web can be fairly uniquely identified by the fingerprint that their computer produces. That combined with the information you’ll provide on various websites means they’ll still be able to tie all of your web activity uniquely to you.

One way to reduce exposure is to use several web browsers.  Granted they will still be able to associate some records based on your IP address but they will not be able to tie it all together quite so tightly. As far as they are aware there might be several people using several PCs in an office or home. This might sound like a lot of effort but I’ve been doing this for a few months and it’s proven to be quite simple.

Personally I use Google Chrome to browse social networks and some other websites that require a login such as web mail and banking. I use an extension called TinyFilter which stops Chrome from visiting any website other than the ones I’ve approved to prevent any accidents. I then use Mozilla Firefox for any other web browsing and I don’t log into any website so even though Google can build up a picture of the web browsing activity for someone, they do not specifically know that it is me.

The main inconvenience with this approach is instead of clicking a link on perhaps Facebook or Twitter I would right-click the link, copy and then paste the it into Firefox. I don’t think is a very big hindrance to maintain an element of privacy. It might also cause a problem if you happen to use the social network sign-in options on things like news or forum sites but you can always add those to Chrome.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this topic, whether it worries you, whether you welcome the ‘improved’ services and whether you plan to change your behaviour as a result of it.  Please feel free to drop me a line in the comments down below…

2 thoughts on “Google and Privacy

  1. Cat

    You can just drag and drop links from chrome into firefox in your taskbar? Bit simpler I guess – or at least in Win7 you can..

    Would it be a real PITA to develop an “open in firefox” add on? or an open in chrome add on for ff?

    1. thegaryhawkins Post author

      Hey Cat thanks for stopping by 🙂 Dragging links is new to me, thanks! Although doesn’t seem to work in Linux (Suse 12.1) and with WindowsXP you have to hover over the Task Bar button for Firefox to appear before dropping the link onto the browser window.

      Also that’s a good idea for an extension, seems quite simple so I’ll take a look into it but that’s a whole new field for me…

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