You’re on the way to a meeting. Traffic seems to be slowing. A text comes in: “You’re going to be late. Take the next exit for alternate route.” It’s from Google.
This is not Google’s version of Siri. It’s a result of the company’s push to use data it collects from you in novel ways that could be helpful, or unsettling.
“That’s not something I want my computer telling me. It’s creepy,” said Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights advocacy organization located in San Francisco.
“Google has always collected information. That hasn’t changed,” Opsahl said. “But information that was once siloed will now be co-mingled.”
Google’s new policy replaces more than 60 existing product-specific privacy documents, for services including Gmail , YouTube and Google Docs. Google says the unified terms will provide better search results and serve up ads that are more likely to be of interest. By combining your history across products, it will have more data to work with.
Connecting the dots
Further, Google will merge data from the products you use and then analyze it to make new assumptions. That example of getting a text when you are running late is from a Jan. 26 email that Google itself sent to users. If you have an Android phone, Google already knows your location. If you keep appointments in Google Calendar, it also knows where you are trying to go. By cross-referencing that data with its traffic information service, Google can send you that alert.
Opsahl also pointed out that there are many people who have more than one Google account, such as one they use for business and one for personal communication. If data from different accounts are pooled into one Google repository with your name on it, that could cause problems.
“If Google received a warrant to disclose documents, and your business and personal docs are intermingled — that’s a problem,” he said. “Some would like to say, “No, thank you” and keep their accounts separate.”
“Google should make it easy for people to set up and manage separate accounts if they wish to do so,” Opsahl said.
While the new policy doesn’t eliminate users’ ability to set up different accounts under different names, Google intends to use data such as search history, whom you contact most frequently and your location to serve you better without regard for the partitions you may have created. “In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products,” Google said.
The policy change could create problems for those who go by different names. Google’s new text reads:
“We may use the name you provide for your Google Profile across all of the services we offer that require a Google Account. In addition, we may replace past names associated with your Google Account so that you are represented consistently across all our services.”
Google+ requires real names while YouTube does not. Starting March 1, your real name could appear across Google products. If you’re hardworking accountant Jim by day and posting your Glee-inspired musical renditions on YouTube by night, you might have some explaining to do.
Take it or leave it
To get a glimpse of what Google knows about you, visit your Dashboard. Login to Google, go to “Account Settings,” select “Products” and then “Login to dashboard.” You’ll see a listing of the products you use and your most recent activity for each, including the last Web page you visited, your top three contacts and how many Google docs you’ve created.
Imagine the ways that data could be used — is it a “beautifully simple, intuitive user experience,” as Google says, or just plain creepy?