Large waves of criticism have been leveled at Google, labeling the changes a violation of privacy and a malicious attempt to intrude on Google users’ private information.
The thing is, all Google is doing is integrating the separate privacy policies of YouTube, Google, Search, and more into a single policy that will allow it to better deliver targeted ads based on one’s web usage history, along with other minor changes in the way their services and products interact with the user. In addition, Google can only do this when the user is logged into their Google account, and the user has options to restrict Google from mining their web usage information by changing their settings. Of course, turning off Google’s eyes on your web usage is going to involve digging through your user settings across multiple services, which means that few people will actually take the time to turn Google’s tracking devices off.
Are The Policy Changes Really Bad?
That all sounds fairly innocuous, and in reality, it is. Google is simply taking information it already has about users of its products (which its users agreed to when they consented to the terms of service) and combining it so Google can use the information across its entire portfolio of services and products. Some people seem overly agitated about this change, but this is nothing new.
For decades, credit card companies have compiled massive databases containing customer profiles that include their entire shopping history; legally they can only share that information with “affiliated” companies, but “affiliated” is a blurry definition that’s constantly exploited. In fact, companies like Visa and MasterCard might have more information on you than Google does!
Everyone Tracks Your Information
On top of all that, Google definitely isn’t the only online business that tracks your web usage. Microsoft does it too, despite the opportunistic criticism they’ve level on Google. Julia Angwin of the Wall Street Journal reported in 2010 that there is a rapidly growing online business in tracking software, software that is used by many major websites that gathers real-time information on their visitors. The software sets cookies and what are known as “beacons” that try to figure out your usage of the site. These cookies and “beacons” attempt to learn about your individual tastes and preferences, not just tracking which pages you visit and how long you spend on them.
Your web browser is most likely stuck with thousands of cookies, beacons, and other tracking software unless you’ve turned off all cookies from being set. Very few people are actually paranoid enough to block all cookies, since manually providing their login information with every site visit can be a pain in the neck.
In Feb/12, the New York Times’s article titled How Companies Learn Your Secrets further illustrates that you are being tracked with every purchase you make.
What Privacy Actually Means Now.
Our standards of “privacy” have been re-shaped with this new approach of targeted advertising. We lead more and more of our lives online, and we now trust online entities with all kinds of personal information. The current generation of twenty-somethings shares a deep level of personal information on Facebook that their parents incomprehensible. It might be scary to some, but this “brave new world” of unparalleled access into our personal information is not really that new.
Google will even help you move with its Takeout tool, part of its Data Liberation Front. With Takeout, you can export your contacts, calendar, documents, and all sorts of Google Account data into other services like Microsoft or Yahoo! (who will be doing the same thing as Google soon).
- First, go to Account Settings and click on “Data liberation”. Click on “Download your data” and Google will list all the data it has recorded on each of the services you use.
- From there, you can create a unified archive or specifically select the data you want to export, and download it into conveniently .zip’d files.
- After that, you can delete your entire Google account by going to “Account Overview” and scroll down to “Services” where there’s an option to close your Google account. Google will ask you to re-enter your password to make sure, but afterwards, you’ll be free to choose from any other web services to handle your email, calendar, contacts, and online documents.
Go “Incognito” in Your Chrome Browser
Don’t feel like nuking your Google account but still feel a little vulnerable? There’s a few ways you can hide certain information from reaching Google. If you use Google Chrome, use “incognito mode” by clicking on the wrench icon and clicking on “new incognito window”.
You can opt-out of personalized search by clicking here and turning off personalized search, and opt-out of targeted ads by clicking here. This way, you’ll be able to hide most of your personal info from Google, but you’ll have to deal with using Google as a unified service instead of a portfolio of separate services.
USAToday has a good article on the top 5 Ways to Control your Privacy on Google.