Even though Google doesn’t have plans to change its privacy policies, the company has at least pledged to make them more transparent. In early September Google removed redundant clauses, acknowledging that because users’ contacts are shared across Gmail, Google Talk, Calendar, and Docs it didn’t need different policies for each service. The company also removed legal jargon, or re-wrote it in layman’s terms, and added more FAQs to its resource page.
From Google Dashboard (google.com/dashboard), one of several privacy tools that Google recently made more visible, users can see what Google knows about them: how many e-mails are stored (even spam), how many contacts, how many documents, etc. The list also includes recent search terms, which it picks up whenever you perform a Google search in the same browser in which you’re signed into Gmail. That means, when possible, Google ties search terms not just to IP addresses but to Google accounts. With Chrome, too, data related to the browser (say, your plug-ins) will be tied to your Google account if you’re logged into Gmail in the browser. While users can opt out of personalized search results and Google storing their interests, they cannot stop Google from collecting the different kinds of information listed in the dashboard.
As the Wi-Fi data dustup shows, it’s not always clear what information Google is collecting. Nor is it obvious how long any of this information will be stored. What, for instance, happens to our deleted e-mails once they’re automatically purged from our accounts after 30 days? “Google is collecting the world’s information,” EPIC’s Rotenberg said. “Some of it Google chooses to make publicly available, and a lot of it, it doesn’t.”
And that, he says, breeds a double standard: Google enjoys privacy when it comes to the ways it is (or isn’t) protecting its users’ data. “It enjoys a tremendous amount of privacy—I think the better word is ‘secrecy’—because if you wanted to find out from Google the information it has on your search histories or the way it makes decisions to place the ads you see when you visit websites, suddenly Google becomes very secretive and conceals that information.”
That doesn’t mean other companies are more transparent. “Facebook has aroused a lot of concern as well,” said Dempsey, naming one example. Facebook users’ profiles are fodder for targeted advertising, and the company waits 90 days to anonymize “Likes” on websites. Certainly, Facebook can’t discard profiles the way Google potentially could search terms. All the more reason, says Rotenberg, why we so badly need an updated federal privacy law. “So much of the information we obtain today we obtain through the Internet and through Google and other sources, which is part of the reason we’ve argued that privacy protection is critical to ensure the liability of these services,” he said.