Google privacy change draws 'firestorm'

Analysts explain the breadth of the Google data collection plan and how users can avoid it

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Google has maintained that there are ways for users to get around having their information culled and stored.

For instance, search queries are only linked to their identities of users who are signed in to their Google accounts. Gmail chats can be switched to "off the record" and people can use the "incognito" mode in their Chrome browsers, the company added.

Google's new privacy policy doesn't mean the company is collecting any more user data than they were before, said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. Google is simply laying out their plan for collecting data and providing users with more targeted ads.

"This is a good thing for consumers and Google," he said. "Google knows more about what you like and dislike and in turn can charge more for advertising and provide better services. There is a small but loud contingent of people complaining, but on the whole, users don't really care.

"Facebook has consistently stepped over the line and on top of consumers' privacy and there hasn't been any impact to their active users," he added.

Moorhead also noted that users who don't want Google collecting their data can limit what they do with Google services while logged in to a Google account, browse in private modes, and not allow GPS location services.

The problem, though, is that value is added to many services when users login to accounts and have cookies, histories, or track location features activated, he admits.

Olds pointed out that Google isn't just collecting data from users of desktops and laptops. In fact, he said that users of Android devices may be surprised at how much of their use information is being collected and stored.

"[Google's] info-harvest is a rich mix, including who you call, how long you talk, where you were when you called, your phone number, device model, and other data," he said.

"Since it's your smartphone, all of the data is explicitly linked to you as a person, not as an IP address. Now imagine that all of this data can be matched up to what you do with Google search, Gmail, Google docs, and other Google services," Olds said.

Olds noted that the new policies let Google paint a very detailed picture of users, what they like and what they do. And they can sell that data and advertising access.

The best thing users can do if they don't want Google amassing a data store of their information is simply not use Google's services, says both Moorhead and Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group.

"Simply put, users are getting a service or services for free because they are 'paying for it' by providing various degrees of personal information and Google will take as much of that information as they feel they need at any time," said Enderle.

"It would be advisable not to do anything on their services that you don't want known," he added. "Consider not using them for data that needs to be kept confidential."

Olds is betting that users will rethink what they do with free services -- whether Google's or another vendor's -- when they begin to see more ads in sidebars that directly relate to things that were just mentioned in an email they received or sent.

"They say that if you're playing poker with strangers and you can't spot the rube at the table, then you're the rube," said Olds. "There's a corollary for online services. If you're not paying for a product or service, then you are the product."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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