Another Google Buzz privacy concern - updated

Many Google aficionados scoff when I say I do not use my Gmail account for sensitive personal or business communications. In fact, I'm surprised when I hear that any Web-savvy users do. The reason used to be that Google admitted crawling the messages to serve "more relevant" ads.

Now I've got another.

If you leave Google Buzz in default mode, it will automatically start following people for you -- apparently the people you've e-mailed most often. And, those you follow appear in your public profile. As Silicon Valley Insider points out, unless you proactively change these settings, everyone knows your most valuable contacts.

It doesn't take much imagination to come up with scenarios where that would be, well, less than ideal. A journalist contacting confidential sources. An executive communicating with a headhunter.

Says Silicon Valley Insider:

It gets to a deeper problem with Google Buzz: It's built on e-mail, which is a very different Internet application than a social network.

The good news for Google is that this is a very easy problem to fix. Google must either shut off auto-following, or it must make follower lists private by default as soon as possible.

Yes. E-mail and social networking are not always the same. I definitely have a different relationship -- and privacy expectation -- with Twitter followers than people I e-mail. Even if some of them overlap, they all don't.

Barbara Krasnoff already pointed out the privacy issue with Google Buzz on a mobile device, where it announces your location along with your posts. Google's lax attitude about this sort of thing is also why I refuse to use Gmail on my mobile phone -- I simply have no idea what they plan on doing with my information someday.

Google didn't immediately comment on the issue when contacted by the IDG News Service.

Update: Google says it's made some changes in response to privacy concerns. " We heard from people that the checkbox for choosing not to display this information was too hard to find, and based on this feedback, we've changed the notice to make it very clear. We will roll these changes out to all Gmail users later today," Victoria Katsarou with Google Communications told me.

Those include:

 "1. More visible option to not show followers/people you follow on your public profile . . .

"2. Ability to block anyone who starts following you. . . .

"3. More clarity on which of your followers/people you follow can appear on your public profile

Initially, we showed you a list of all the people who would be following you once they created a public profile. However, only those contacts who had already created a public profile would show up on your public follower list. We're making this clearer by explicitly distinguishing which of your followers have public profiles and will show in your public list of followers. With this change you'll be able to see who is on the public list of followers that everyone else sees." 

I like Google products. I use Gmail regularly for non-sensitive messages. I use and enjoy Google Docs (and love that they've added scripting capability to free Google Apps accounts). I regularly use Google for searching and Google News to find articles about hot stories. But if they want me to trust them enough with more important information, they need to take privacy more seriously.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld.. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000 or subscribe to her RSS feeds:
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