Google continues to impress with its privacy initiatives

Google continues to impress me with its privacy initiatives, with one or two exceptions. Well, before I go into the reasons for this statement, let me first say that when it comes to Google and privacy, it is really more about safeguarding personal information than privacy in secrecy terms (although that is part of what Google is concerned with). I just watched a video which helpfully sets out Google’s 5 guiding Privacy Principles:

Google has implemented a number of initiatives in recent months to improve users’ control over their personal information, be more transparent about what personal information Google collects about its users and, more recently, to take what seem to be fairly drastic steps to protect its stores of users’ personal information contained in its servers. The one anomaly that stands out is its CEO’s recent comments about privacy which indicated a lack of understanding of some important privacy related issues. Thankfully Eric Schmidt’s comments do not appear to be representative of Google’s overall approach to privacy, though.

I just read a post on the Google blog stating the privacy principles I referred to above. In summary, these are Google’s Privacy Principles:

  1. Use information to provide our users with valuable products and services.
  2. Develop products that reflect strong privacy standards and practices.
  3. Make the collection of personal information transparent.
  4. Give users meaningful choices to protect their privacy.
  5. Be a responsible steward of the information we hold.

Google makes a lot of people nervous about privacy and its respect for personal information, myself included. What makes me nervous is the degree to which I use Google services for a range of fairly important services including email, calendaring, contacts and more. I am nervous about it because Google is an enormous company and not at all within my control. It could turn off my accounts tomorrow and I’d have almost no real recourse against it. That makes me a little nervous and dependent on Google to keep providing me with the services I use every day.

Google is in a good position to abuse my trust and my personal information considerably and the fact that it doesn’t appear to have done anything which I find really objectionable reduces my Google anxiety considerably. In contrast we have seen Facebook make considerable inroads into users’ privacy in the last year or so (see my posts here and here). Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has expressly said that, in Facebook’s collective view, users’s personal information should be more exposed to the public Internet on Facebook because this is representative of what he sees as a growing trend among users. Accordingly, Facebook has decided to change its privacy controls to expose more personal information to the Web. That is an abuse of Facebook’s position and its users’ trust, especially considering that it wasn’t too long ago when Zuckerberg proclaimed how important user privacy was to Facebook.

At the risk of this post turning into another Facebook privacy post, my point is that companies Google’s and Facebook’s size have a tremendous amount of power over users’ personal information. Their terms of use usually give them the ability to make substantial changes to how they handle this personal information, practically at will, and it is telling how they use that power. As Uncle Ben told Peter Parker before he became Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility“. Google, for the most part, seems to be a responsible company when it comes to users’ personal information.

When talking about Google and privacy, privacy advocates often point to how Google uses personal information to customise the ads it displays alongside search results, in free Google Mail account pages and so on. This, they sometimes say, is an indication that Google doesn’t respect users’ personal information and takes advantage of that personal information to make a profit. My take on this is that you can’t look at what Google does with personal information in such stark terms. The starting point for a discussion about Google and privacy is that Google is a commercial enterprise and most definitely “for profit”. Its range of terrific and free services are implicitly provided as part of a trade with users for access to and permission to use their personal information. In Gmail, for example, Google’s algorithms scan the content of your emails and present ads which appear to correspond with your emails’ subject matter. In return users have one of the best email services available in terms of functionality, usability and flexibility, not to mention the amount of storage (around 7GB).

Another important thing to bear in mind is that privacy, as in secrecy, is becoming more of an exception to the general rule that users’ personal information is public in varying degrees. It therefore becomes vital that users’ personal information is collected pursuant to their informed consent and only used in ways that users consent to. This is the context I consider Google’s and other providers’ approaches to privacy in. It helps strike a balance between their commercial activities which depend on users’ personal information in many instances and optimal respect for users’ personal information. At this point you consider whether Google has made a serious effort to –

  • inform users what personal information it collects and what it does with it;
  • give users meaningful control over the personal information it does collect;
  • give users a way to opt out of its services and take their personal information elsewhere;
  • only use users’ personal information in accordance with the consent they have given and otherwise responsibly.

 

While we can probably never know what is really going on behind the scenes at Google, its public pronouncements indicate that it is sticking to its Privacy Principles. One thing that we can see for sure (again, as sure as we can be) is that Google is making a concerted effort to be as transparent as it can be about privacy issues. Its Privacy Center is an excellent example of this.

As responsible as Google appears to be at the moment with users’ personal information, it remains every users’ own responsibility to be vigilant and watch out for abuses or misuses of their personal information. The same thing applies to Facebook and any other service you may use which involves collecting and processing your personal information. There are a couple things you can do:

  • Follow people online who track these sorts of issues;
  • Subscribe to Google’s, Facebook’s and your various services’ blogs to see what announcements they make about these sorts of issues and their services in general;
  • Read terms of use and privacy policies and ask questions if you don’t understand them or if they concern you; and
  • Investigate privacy controls and settings that your preferred service may have and make sure they are set according to your preferences.

All things considered I remain fairly comfortable with the level of access Google has to my personal information and what it does with that personal information. I still keep an eye out for a comparable service I could migrate to if this ever changes and I use services like Backupify to backup my online data. I also keep local copies of my emails in email applications like Thunderbird and Mail.app (I have a preference to Thunderbird as an archival solution because it is a cross-platform application and I can easily migrate my archives to Windows and Linux computers if need be. Google offers users the ability to export a lot of their data from its various services (did you know you can export your Google Docs documents in a variety of document formats?). Learn about these options and take advantage of them to backup your data.

We expect companies like Google and Facebook to be responsible in their use of our personal information. It is also equally important that we, as users, take responsibility for protecting our personal information too and this includes educating ourselves about what these services do with our personal information and how we can better safeguard our personal information in the event they abuse our trust.

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