Opinion: Why I'm not giving up my Google apps

There's no evidence that Google is aggregating users' content and server log data.

I use more than a dozen different Google services on a regular basis. Is that a bad thing for my privacy? I don't think so. After researching the privacy issues for "What Google knows about you" and hearing all of the pros and cons, I don't plan to drop any Google apps. But I have changed my online behavior a bit. I'm more informed now, and I have taken advantage of some of the privacy controls that Google offers.

I will continue to use products such as Google Search, Gmail and the Chrome browser because they have clean, fast and simple user interfaces that I like. In return for free use of these tools, I give up some personal information, which Google uses to display targeted advertisements within those applications.

What exactly does that bargain entail? Google tries to glean what "interest categories" I fit into based on Web pages I've visited in the past and what I'm doing at the moment within a given Google application -- what I'm searching for or the subject in the e-mail message currently on my screen (several sensitive subject areas excluded).

This information, stored in Google's server logs, is linked to my computer using a single, unique identifying number -- a browser cookie ID -- that I can delete at any time. Google allows me to control the interest categories it uses in its Ad Preferences Manager, or opt out. If I opt out, I'll see random ads. If I stay in, however, I'll see advertisements that make more sense for me personally. I'm OK with that.

I maintain control over the content I create in Gmail, Google Docs and other Google services. I know that Google is sharing some information among these services to allow for some level of integration, but I see no evidence that Google is aggregating server log data and content I create to build some sort of uber-profile about me.

Google stores a lot of information, in many different buckets, regarding my online activities and content I've created using its many services. But that fact does not mean that Google knows more about me than my mother, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Kevin Bankston claims. That's not Google's business model. Personally, I'm more concerned about data aggregators like Acxiom and ChoicePoint, which are in the business of selling personal information about me.

That's not to say that there aren't enormous online privacy challenges here. We live in a world where online privacy laws are weak. That leaves users of online services at the mercy of obtuse vendor privacy statements that can change at any time. It's a world where litigants can serve subpoenas or court orders to retrieve your online data, and Google and other service providers are under no legal obligation to fight it -- or even to inform you that such a demand has been made.

The Google representatives I've spoken to about privacy concerns wonder why their company is being singled out for criticism, why it is expected to be more transparent than anyone else, why it is held to a higher standard. Google still doesn't appear to understand why it is expected to act like a leader. It continues to underestimate the user advocacy role it should be playing with regard to privacy if it is to maintain user trust in the future. That type of leadership cannot come from the company's lawyers, with conditionally worded statements, as it does today. It must come from the top, in clear and certain language.

For now, however, I'm OK with Google's pledge to protect my privacy as outlined on its Privacy Policy and Advertising and Privacy pages. To further clarify the company's position, Google general counsel Peter Fleischer wrote the following to me in an e-mail:

"We have some bedrock principles for safeguarding the personal information that we store across all our services for our users: We don't sell it. We don't collect it without permission. We don't use it to serve ads without permission."

I can live with that -- and I plan to hold the company to that pledge.

I trust Google to respect my privacy. If you use any of Google's applications, you're implicitly saying that you do, too. I trust Google because I know -- and it knows -- that I have other choices. In the market for free online software and services, loyalties can change quickly. A major breach of that trust will instantly send me -- and millions of other users of Google's services -- heading for the exits.

Main story: What Google knows about you

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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