Google to Start Tracking Users Across Services

These days, the main purpose of most internet services seems to be marketing research and ad delivery … so much for privacy, I guess.

An announcement was posted yesterday on the official Google blog that indicates that changes are being made to Google’s privacy policies and terms of service. What first looks like a reasonable thing to do is in fact something that will keep privacy advocates up at night. Google will merge their privacy policies, of which about 60 are now available, into one main privacy policy. This on first glance is good from a user perspective, as it improves the privacy policy’s accessibility.

Google furthermore has created a main Google Terms of Service file that covers many of their products. This too improves accessibility.

The following paragraphs outlines how Google thinks users will profit from the change

What does this mean in practice? The main change is for users with Google Accounts. Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.

Our recently launched personal search feature is a good example of the cool things Google can do when we combine information across products. Our search box now gives you great answers not just from the web, but your personal stuff too. So if I search for restaurants in Munich, I might see Google+ posts or photos that people have shared with me, or that are in my albums. Today we can also do things like make it easy for you to read a memo from Google Docs right in your Gmail, or add someone from your Gmail contacts to a meeting in Google Calendar.

But there’s so much more that Google can do to help you by sharing more of your information with … well, you. We can make search better—figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too. For example, it’s January, but maybe you’re not a gym person, so fitness ads aren’t that useful to you. We can provide reminders that you’re going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day. Or ensure that our spelling suggestions, even for your friends’ names, are accurate because you’ve typed them before. People still have to do way too much heavy lifting, and we want to do a better job of helping them out.

The first thing that you will notice is that Google will share activity information between services come March 1 when the new policies go live. This has an impact on two areas:

  • Personalization: Up until now only a handful services shared information with each other, Google+ data was for instance used for a personalized search experience. Now all data may be used for that experience.
  • Advertisement: The more Google knows about you, the higher paying ads they can get to be displayed to you.

We already know that Google is reading your emails to serve ads on Gmail. Gmail users who are using other Google services may now see tailored ads pop up on other services as well, or YouTube videos recommended to them based on the emails they read.

It could also link things they do on their phone to searches they make on a desktop PC, or display ads for a popular coffee chain on their phone if Google has picked up that you like to drink coffee in the morning and notice that you are currently on the go with your phone.

Google could use location based information it collects from the Android phone to display ads to you on all other Google services that share the new privacy policy. You went to a clothing store for big people? Then you may see “lose weight” videos on YouTube, or ads on Google search.

Like to visit sex clubs? How about ads for related items on your desktop?

As Owen Williams points out over at Neowin, this could also have business and job related consequences. If you have an Android business phone that you use with an enterprise account, then other users with access to that account may see what you have been up to lately.

What you view at home, while accidentally being logged into your Enterprise Google Apps account could mean you have an awkward conversation with your boss.

There is no opting-out

No opt-out is offered by Google. Users who want to keep their account data separated only have two options: Create a separate Google account for each service they use, or cancel their Google account and move on to another service provider.

It is unlikely that many users will actually close their account as a consequence. Depending on which Google services are used, it could mean lots of work. And lets not forget that you’d need to research the new service’s privacy policies and terms of service as well.

Mitigation may be possible, if users log out of Google whenever possible. This could reduce the number of personalized ads and recommendations that they will see on Google product pages.

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