If you've been using any Google product these past few weeks -- Gmail, YouTube, Picasa, Docs, Maps, even plain search -- you've seen the warnings: big privacy changes ahead! Here is how the warning looks on YouTube just now:
And this is what I saw on, I think, my Google calendar yesterday:
The new rules, which have been the subject of considerable discussion and much denunciation, take effect tomorrow. You can read Google's official explanation of them here, which is also what you would see if you push the "Learn More" button on any of those warning boxes.
Based on what I've been able to learn about them, I am in the non-alarmist camp* about the implications of these changes**. Here is my reasoning:
- There is no indication that Google will have any more info about you tomorrow, when the new rules take place, than it has today. The info has been piling up, at Google and other "big data" online companies, all along.
- There is every indication that Google is being far more open and forthcoming about what it's collecting than most others in the industry. The obvious counterexample is Facebook, which has repeatedly changed its privacy rules, usually in the direction of violating your privacy and usually without mentioning the change until someone else has noticed and complained.
- Main point: This change gives every Google-products user a prod, an incentive, and a convenient way to do the single most valuable thing you can do today to guard your online privacy. That is to go to your own personal "Google Dashboard" -- www.google.com/dashboard, where you will have to sign in with your own credentials -- and then take a careful look at exactly what information Google in all its incarnations is storing about you. What searches you have done; what recordings exist of your voice via Google's speech-recognition features; what Groups you are part of; what "online identity" you present; and scores of other settings.
Really, you will be amazed both at what is there, and at how much of it you can tweak, anonymize, remove, opt-out of, and, above all, simply be aware of. If Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc did something similar -- by which I mean offering a one-stop-shopping site for everything about your captured online info -- we'd had taken a step toward a less intrusive web.
When you're done with that, you can go to your personal ad-preferences page on Google -- which you'll find via google.com/settings/ads -- and see what your online track record is telling advertisers about your location, demographics, interests, and so on. And you can get some of this data removed. (You may have to prowl around in your Google account settings to find this, and you may have to re-enter your password or other authentication data so they know it's you. But you will find it.)
Privacy problems are with us in the long run. But if this shift in Google policy prompts users to look at their Dashboards and Ad Settings and respond to what they see, it will have done much more good than harm.
* Standard disclosure: Many of my friends and one of my family members work at Google.
** Two days ago the Washington Post had a story about the Google privacy controversy that managed to convey the concerns with this fresh metaphor:
"It's sort of the story of how you boil a frog in lukewarm water. Google may be capturing its consumers in the same way so that consumers don't understand what is happening until they are cooked," said Bert Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute.