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:

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