Google+ Privacy = ??

Jake Laperruque 
Two weeks ago tech giant Google charged back into the social networking world with Google+.  And while Google’s past efforts to break into this field have ranged from awful to really awful, this latest attempt seems to be an immediate success.  In less than fourteen days and without even going public, Google+ has already amassed 10,000,000 users, a feat that took rival Facebook nearly three years (and enough backstabbing to make an awesome movie) to accomplish.
Even better, Google’s new tool has been all the Buzz (oh . . . too soon?) of the tech world.  Rave reviews have been pouring in from tech commentators and the public; users are happy to have a social networking option with Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” creed as an alternative to Facebook’s somewhat more evilresistance-is-futile style.   Critics have also lauded Google+ for privacy features.

But does Google+ actually live up to the privacy-friendly reputation it’s rapidly been developing?

The Pluses:

Google+ does make a number of commendable privacy innovations, and perhaps the best is Circles, which let’s you create groups and separate who you share what with.  Circles does more than just stop you from awkwardly commenting on your Wall Post about getting plastered the previous night.  By divvying up your information, it becomes much harder for schools, employers, and law enforcement to pry into your profile, something that quickly became far too easy for these organizations to do on Facebook.

Google+ also deserves credit for its upfront privacy settings.  Facebook was notorious for setting out new features with low privacy settings built in, leaving users exposed until they independently realized the problem and changed the settings, which were often buried  inconvenient and unclear locations.  Google capitalized on Facebook’s past problems, and made straightforward privacy settings a prime feature, allowing users to figure out exactly what they are making publicly available.  Google+ even includes an easily accessible preview feature, which allows you to look at your profile from the perspective of various outside users (both in and out of your Circles), so you know exactly what you’re putting out into cyberspace.

Finally, Google+ includes an easy process for fully shutting down your account.  This has been another issue on which Facebook has taken heat, and with good reason.  It’s bad business practice to hold customers hostage, and even worse to keep their information in public against their wishes.  The Google+ shutdown process allows users to completely delete all their information in a matter of minutes.

The Minuses

However, Google+ is not perfect when it comes to privacy.  First, there is the basic information collection; Google stockpiles your posts, comments, and likes, and uses them to build a profile for advertisers.  But their stance on this is better than most; users can easily change their privacy settings so that outside advertisements are not affected by liking posts.

Here’s where things get stickier – according to the Google+ privacy policy“We may also collect information about you from other users, such as when someone puts you in one of their circles or tags you in a photo.  Some users may choose to display information about you publicly, such as by displaying your public profile name and photo on their Google Profile in a list of people they’ve added to their circles.”  This is troublesome because it takes your own privacy out of your hands, greatly diminishing the value Google+’s user-friendly settings.  And while Google does offer de-tagging, this response is like closing the barn door after someone’s already walked in and photographed the whole place.

Google+ also has privacy problems when it comes to geolocation.  Also from the privacy policy: “When using Google+ on your mobile device, Google collects your location to provide the service (such as to display nearby posts to you), as described when you sign up for the mobile version of the product.”  Legislative measures are already under consideration to limit corporate use of geolocation information.  Until these measures become law, your location is constantly available to both law enforcement and private companies if Google chooses to hand it out.

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, your creative works are unsafe on Google+.  According to Section 11 of Google’s Terms of Service, “you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services.”  This means any artistic work you post on Google+ is free reign for the company to use any way it wants.  Artists, poets, and photographers beware.

The Questions Marks

There are other privacy issues regarding Google+ that remain unanswered.  The largest right now concerns a feature that allows others to spread your posts outside of their designated Circles by clicking a “Share” button (something that has already given the world a private glance at Mark Cuban’s college years).  The question becomes whether we’ll be willing to trust our Circles of Friends and Acquaintances to keep our secrets, and whether that trust will be well placed.

The more long term question concerns how Google+ develops.  Most of Facebook’s privacy problems did not come at its inception – when it was seen as the less-sketchy alternative to MySpace – but rather as it rolled out new features over time, paving the way for Google+ to jump in as a less-sketchy alternative to Facebook.  Google+ has the potential to be the service that lets us move into the broad realm of cyberspace while still maintaining a sphere of privacy, but potential and reality are far different things.  Until then, wait, watch, and keep a careful eye on who’s watching you.


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