Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Google's New Privacy Policy: A Reading

Lately, Google has begun to bombard me. I cannot watch a Youtube video, check a Google Doc, or run a web search without getting accosted by an urgent request to read Google's new privacy policy. The changes at Google hold particular relevance to every Columbia student, as the University moves forward with its plan to scrap Cubmail for Gmail.

The prospect that a Columbia-wide shift to Gmail might be cause for concern was picked up, albeit briefly and sardonically, by campus media. Ultimately, seeing as how I do interact with Google on a fairly regular basis, I decided to actually sit down and read the privacy policy. Here are the highlights, as I see them:

1) Google collects the information we volunteer.

When we provide our names, phone numbers, credit card numbers--Google is keeping tabs.

2) Google collects information from our use of its products

Google tracks the type of hardware we use, and associates it with our Google accounts. Google also logs our phone calls, notes our IP address, and "automatically collects and stores" our Google search queries.

3) Google likes to know where we are.

Like a good mother, Google worries. Which is why "[w]hen you use a location-enabled Google service, we may collect and process information about your actual location, like GPS signals sent by a mobile device."

4) Google hopes you don't mind if it moves in for a bit.

Google would like you to know that your hard drive has a lot of space. It hopes you don't mind sharing some of it so that Google can collect and locally store information "on your device using mechanisms such as browser web storage (including HTML 5) and application data caches."

5) Google bakes.

Because Google knows good house-guests make themselves useful, it brought cookies! Admittedly, these cookies tend to share data with third-parties so as to tailor your internet ads, and may come with other hidden surprises, but they won't make you fat.

Also, you might be relieved to know that "[w]hen showing you tailored ads, we will not associate a cookie or anonymous identifier with sensitive categories, such as those based on race, religion, sexual orientation or health."

Luckily, I don't think of my political beliefs as a sensitive category, either.

6) Google likes to share.

As Eben has frequently pointed out in class, we users don't have much control over how Google treats our data once we hand it over. You should note that Google, in addition to sharing your information with outside companies and organizations (subject to a nebulous consent policy regarding sensitive information), has legal concerns.

Unlike you, Google never went to law school. It doesn't treat our communications as privileged or recognize a heightened duty of confidentiality with its users. So, Google:

will share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google if we have a good-faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of the information is reasonably necessary to:

  • meet any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request.
  • enforce applicable Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations.
  • detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues.
  • protect against harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, our users or the public as required or permitted by law.

It seems our Google+ circles just got a little wider.


Most of this isn't news. Ad-tracking cookies are commonplace, Facebook has long made a business of monetizing our personal details, and Foursquare has been an expert at making fashionable voluntary personal tracking devices. But Google's ubiquity makes their policies and conduct deeply relevant.

And I suspect most Columbia freshmen won't be reading the fine print on their new email addresses next fall.

Link to Google's new privacy policy:

-- RonMazor - 08 Feb 2012

As a little follow up: Google is not the only one who likes to share...

-- SophieLange - 09 Feb 2012

Looks like Microsoft wants to capitalize on Gmail users' gradual realization of these troubling policies.

I wonder if their Scroogle campaign will convince anyone. They also seem to be taking a public stand in favor of an overarching consumer privacy law.

-- AndrewReich - 01 Apr 2013



Webs Webs

r5 - 01 Apr 2013 - 23:00:08 - AndrewReich
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