Protecting Your Privacy on Google Services

In the same way that the brand “Kleenex” is generically used to refer to any tissue for blowing one’s nose, “Google” has for many people become the generic term for “search.” There are dozens of search engines available, yet only a minority of users can name or have tried more than two or three of them.

You are probably using Google, and you’re probably among the large number of users who are uncomfortable with the amount of information the company is collecting about you.

Recently, Google altered their privacy rules so that all your actions on any of their 60+ sites and subsidiaries– like YouTube, Gmail, Google+, Google search, and even Android phones, are combined into a single user profile. The company says this change will improve consumer’s user experience and simplify their privacy policy.

Privacy advocates and organizations, as well as government agencies in Canada, the U.S., and Europei have taken a far darker view of Google’s privacy changes, concerned that this vast consolidation of information will be leveraged in ways that do not protect consumer privacy.

In fact, the Consumers Union is warning consumers that Google can now create a much more detailed – and intrusive - profile about you with their new method of collecting your data from its many services, through the queries you make on Google Search, and through your YouTube activity.

The Consumers Union highlights that one goal of Google’s data collection is to sell other companies the opportunity to target you with more adsii.

Addressing their privacy concerns, Policy Counsel for Consumers Union Ioana Rusu, saidiii, “When a company with as many services as Google is collecting so much information across so many services and combining them into a personal file about you, it naturally raises a lot of questions and concerns.  Some of the most popular sites on the web belong to Google.  If you’re online, one way or the other, you’re going to run into a Google product.  If you don’t like the idea of Google being able to collect your activity on all these different sites into a single dossier, there are some steps you can take to minimize the data that Google gathers about you, but the size and scope of this effort are still troubling.”

How to reduce your data exposure on Google services:

  1. Consider whether you want to sign-in: Google tracks what happens when you are signed in. You can circumvent a great deal of tracking and personalization by simply choosing not to sign in – or by signing out. Some Google services require that you sign in – their Gmail and Picasa services for example – but you can choose to sign out of these services before using other Google services like search or maps, or you can use different browsers to keep your identity private when using services that don’t require sign-in.
  2. Use your browser’s privacy setting: All the main browsers now offer a form of “stealth mode” that blocks your actions from being recorded in browser history files, and deletes tracking files added by any website when you’re done. Of course, each browser has a different name for this privacy mode.
    Microsoft’s IE calls it “InPrivate Browsing,” both Firefox and Safari call it “Private Browsing,” and on Google’s Chrome it is called the “new incognito window.” Unfortunately, in February of 2012 Google was caught bypassing the privacy settings of Apple’s Safari browser and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, so these solutions may not be entirely helpfuliv.
  3. Use Google’s own privacy tools:

To help you reduce the amount of information being collected about you when using Google services, the company has created a privacy tools page that outlines the following privacy features:

  • Google Dashboard Find the answer to the question, “What does Google know about me?” by visiting the Google Dashboard, which shows you information stored in your Google Account. From one central location, you can easily change your privacy settings for services such as Blogger, Calendar, Docs, Gmail, Picasa and Profiles.
  • Ads Preferences Manager View and edit the information Google uses to show you ads on Google search and Gmail, and interest-based ads on websites in Google’s ad network. Add or edit information to affect how ads are selected for you, or opt out of seeing customized ads altogether.
  • Data Liberation Front We think you should be able to control the information you store online. Learn how you can move your data in and out of Google products.
  • Keep My Opt-Outs Install this Chrome extension for a one-step, persistent opt-out of ad personalization performed by companies adopting the industry privacy standards for online advertising.
  • Encrypted search Encrypt the search traffic between your computer and Google, helping to protect your search terms and your search results pages from being intercepted by a third party. Try a more secure and private search experience.
  • Incognito mode in Google Chrome When you want to browse the Internet in stealth mode, Google Chrome offers Incognito browsing. Pages you open and files you download while in Incognito mode aren’t recorded in Chrome’s browsing or download history. This can prove useful if you’re planning a surprise birthday present or party!
  • Street View Blurring and Takedowns We automatically blur identifiable faces and license plates in Street View to protect individual privacy. We also provide easily accessible tools so you can request further blurring of any image that features yourself, your family, your car or your home. You can also request the removal of images that feature inappropriate content.
  • Unlisted and Private Videos on YouTube YouTube was created for people to share ideas with the entire world. But sometimes you might just rather share it with a small group of friends or keep it to yourself. You can do that by choosing either unlisted or private when you upload your video.
  • Web History Controls If you’re signed in to a Google Account and have turned on Web History when you search, it helps you see your previous search terms and which results you’ve clicked on. We provide you control by letting you delete individual entries, pause collection, or opt-out of the service altogether.
  • Off the Record Gmail Chats Don’t want Gmail chat conversations to be stored in your account? Choose to chat “off the record”. You and your Gmail friends can see when a chat is taken off the record, and you’ll be instantly notified if your friend decides to chat on the record again.
  • Google Analytics Opt-out Google Analytics generates statistics about visitors to websites, such as the number of page views or times of peak traffic. If you don’t want your anonymous browser data to be collected by Google Analytics when you visit sites that use Google Analytics, you can install an opt-out in your web browser.
  • Search Personalization Opt-out Sometimes we personalize search results based on your previous activity in order to better help you find what you’re looking for, even if you’re not signed into a Google Account. But if you’d rather we didn’t do this, you can disable the feature altogether.
  • Control Your Location in Google Latitude Google Latitude makes it easy to share your location with your family and friends in real time. You can adjust your privacy settings in Latitude so that you share as much or as little about your location as you want, with whom you want. You can also cancel using the service – or simply not sign up for it.

4. Use a different company: If you don’t want Google to collect and aggregate the amount of your personal information that it claims rights to, you can choose to only keep some of your activities on Google services or not use Google services at all.  There are many alternative search, email, navigation, photo sharing, etc. tools to choose from.

When it comes to search, the nine most popular search engines (aside from Google) today are: Bing, Yahoo!, Ask, AOL, myWebSearch, Lycos, Dogpile, WebCrawler, and Info. Check out the privacy policies of these to find one that best fits your needs.

Or, you can choose to be entirely anonymous when searching by using a search engine like Ixquick, which has been awarded the European Privacy Seal. Ixquick never collects or shares any user information. When you use Ixquick, it sends your search query to the large search engine companies on your behalf so you remain entirely anonymous. And, because Ixquick forwards your query to several search engines you get the best search results.

The amount of personal information collected by various search engines about you varies drastically, and there’s a good chance that the search engine you’re using doesn’t match your privacy preferences. It’s time to check out what search engines know about you, and select one that best fits your privacy needs.


i International Reactions to Google’s New Privacy Policy
ii http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/core_telecom_and_utilities/018367.html
iii http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/core_telecom_and_utilities/018367.html
iv http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-57379931-281/wsj-google-tricked-apples-safari-in-order-to-track-users/?tag=contentMain;contentBody

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