Google's New Privacy Policy

January 25, 2012

Yesterday Google announced an upcoming change in their privacy policies. But under the guise of simplification and consolidation lies a grab for more power over your personal information. Under the new policy they will begin linking your personal information across their myriad services.

Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services.

This is unprecedented, as Google has mostly compartmentalized its users’ data in the past and has been especially careful in its handling of search queries. Julia Angwin of The Wall Street Journal writes:

This could effectively rewrite the relationship between users and the world’s most-popular search engine.

Google has long treated users’ search queries as sacrosanct—in part because they can contain very personal sensitive information—about topics such as health and finances.

This respect for sensitive data is part of how they earned their place at the top of the search market, but they are quickly burning through their stockpile of user goodwill. In recent weeks they have been caught buying links to promote the Chrome web browser and started giving preference to Google Plus pages in search rankings, violating two core principles underlying their typically very fair and informative search results. Now this policy change is being rolled out. So much for their old motto, “don’t be evil.”

Now, just imagine how much someone could learn about you if given unfettered access to all of your web searches (Google Search) as well as your email (Gmail), contacts (Contacts), investments (Finance), social network (Plus), documents (Docs), purchases (Shopper), location (Android), and so on… You get the picture.

Although Google is big, it’s not impossible to imagine an internet without it playing such a central role. To put things into perspective, another thing we learned yesterday was that Apple’s profits alone last quarter were higher than Google’s entire revenues. Google would do well to remember how quickly things can change on the internet when users are upset.

There is a fine balance between usefulness and invasiveness and this new policy is a step too far for me. Between now and March 1, when the new policy goes into effect, I’ll be transitioning away from Google’s services and using Google search only anonymously, without logging in. Stay tuned for more on alternative tools and services. For now, check out the Data Liberation Front.