Is Google serious about your privacy?

Google is doing some very interesting work in the privacy space. I have already talked about the Google Dashboard which gives users a detailed and, perhaps, frightening overview of all the personal information Google has collected about its users. One important realisation which users should take from the Dashboard is one which I have referred to in the past, namely that privacy as secrecy is virtually non-existant if you engage with the social Web in much detail. The only real variable is the degree to which your personal information is shared online.

I came across a set of new features in Google’s Latitude (its location-based service that ties in with Google Maps) which present an interesting perspective on how Google is dealing with privacy issues, particularly when it comes to privacy-sensitive services like Latitude. Google Latitude has a number of applications you can add to your Latitude service which both enhance your location-based experience and create more opportunities for your personal information to be exposed.

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One of the reasons why location information is so sensitive is that location-based services like Google Latitude track your movements revealing not only information about where you work and live; where your children go to school as well as where you shop and the other places you frequent. Particularly sensitive Latitude applications like the Location History are not publicly available (although Location Alerts, the Public Location Badge and Google Talk Location Status do share your current location to a degree based on your Latitude location sharing preferences).

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Of course you can disable Latitude on your device but you may leave it active for a variety of reasons including the ability to keep family members apprised of your location; keeping track of friends and so on. Given that you could build up quite a detailed location-based history it is important to have meaningful control over that history and it appears that Google has developed tools to help you do just that.

Google’s Location History privacy tools give you the ability to decide whether to track your location history or not. If you are tracking your location history you can delete individual items, whole sections of your history or all of it.

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You can also disable any of the other Latitude applications on the website too (they are set to “disabled” by default). In addition to this you can also elect whether to run Latitude when you are using Google Maps and thereby effectively prevent all Latitude applications from operating.

While Latitude is a useful service and users do appear to have control over whether to use the service and how much of their location-based personal information they share with Google and their contacts, this service is not offered for purely altruistic reasons. As with other Google services like Search and Gmail, ads presented on those sites are customised based on keywords on the page (automatic filters pick up text in your emails and present ads based on those keywords too). In fact, virtually all of Google’s free services are geared to keep you using the services and clicking on more relevant ads.

At the same time its services are incredibly useful to its users, vital even, even as they are replaceable if push came to shove. Enter the Data Liberation Front: a pseudo political/public service/advocacy Google initiative which has an admirable goal:

The Data Liberation Front is an engineering team at Google whose singular goal is to make it easier for users to move their data in and out of Google products. We do this because we believe that you should be able to export any data that you create in (or import into) a product. We help and consult other engineering teams within Google on how to “liberate” their products.

Data Liberation shows users how to migrate to competing services. It is a tool Google provides its users with to leave Google. The challenge is that there aren’t that many competing services of comparable quality or flexibility and few competitors are taking similar steps to help you safeguard your personal information or retain the ability to keep your data portable.

If you are cynical you may be thinking that this is just elaborate PR speak designed to keep Google’s users quiet. It is tempting to wonder what the catch is and what is going on behind the scenes. Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, has said that the foundation of Google’s relationship with its users is trust and Google is also renowned for its motto “Don’t Be Evil” which has apparently shaped its culture and its decisions about how it does business. I still wonder how deep this sentiment runs and Google’s apparent missteps (such as its questionable Books Settlement due to be assessed by a US court in early 2010) do seem to contradict its seemingly pure motives and fuel its critics.

Just how sincere Google is about protecting its users’ rights to informational self-determination and other aspects of their privacy remains to be seen in time but what is clear is that Google is making a far bigger and overt effort to place control over users’ personal information in users’ hands. The complex controls in Google Latitude illustrates this, as does the Dashboard itself.

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