Ask the Expert: What You Should Know About Google’s Privacy Policies

Q: “I’ve heard quite a bit about Google’s privacy policies, which were updated in 2012. Google insists that changes were necessary to streamline their policies and to provide a richer and more intuitive user experience, but it still bothers me. Am I right to be concerned about this?”

A: This is a good time to go back and look at the changes to Google’s privacy policies that they implemented in 2012.

Before we get into what privacy policy changes were made, let’s look at what Google already knew about you.

It’s pretty mind-boggling: Google tracks and stores every email you send (if you use Gmail), every search term you look up, every Google chat you make, every conversation you have with Google Voice, every appointment you enter into your Google calendar, and every Picasa picture you store, among other things.

They even track everything you search on for up to six months even when you are not logged into Google! The amount they know about each individual user is quite staggering.

It doesn’t matter if you use ad-blockers or not; this data is still collected about you. And private browser features, such as those on Firefox and Safari, do not stop Google from collecting this data; it only stops website information from being stored on your computer.

Google stores all this information about you in giant databases so they can mine it, target ads with it, and run various algorithms with it.

But all of this is what they already know about you.

What about the changed privacy policies that were implemented three years ago?

The Privacy Policy Changes

In a nutshell, Google’s updated privacy policy changes allow for the consolidation of all the information they collect about you over all their product lines, such as YouTube and Google+.

So, for example, if you search for something, you may see ads for that search term when you are on YouTube. More than 70 company policies are being consolidated into one main policy and about a dozen others. Separate policies will continue for Google’s Chrome browser and its Wallet service for electronic payments.

Here is a video from the search giant explaining its “simplified” privacy policy.

What they fail to mention, however, is that another one of their changes is that if you want to use any of Google’s services, such as Gmail, you can not opt-out of this data collection.

It is this point that has many privacy advocates up in arms.

It begs the question: does our personal information belong to us or the corporations that collect it? Instead of being forced to adhere to these data collection rules in order to use a popular product, shouldn’t we insist that companies give us the option to allow or deny them permission to track and store our personal information? What happens if hackers get a hold of this information?

With these new changes to their privacy policy, Google has said that they are trying to “provide you with as much transparency and choice as possible.” However, if we cannot choose to opt out of their data collection, how much choice do we really have? Google is betting that most of us will find it too burdensome to give up using gmail and other Google products.

It’s all About the Money

Google, along with Facebook and other web giants, want to learn as much as possible about you so they can sell advertising. The more they know about you, the higher the rates they can charge to marketers looking to target people who are interested in certain products, such as sky diving or underwater basket weaving.

Google reports that users who view targeted ads are 37% more likely to click on an ad than those that are targeted randomly. So whatever Google says, the real reason why they want to consolidate as much information as they can about you is for one reason: it makes them richer.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a company trying to maximize their profits. The question we should be asking is: at what cost? Do you have the right to maintain your online privacy and only allow companies to use information about you as you see fit? Or do companies have the right to control whatever information they collect about you for their own purposes?

Changes in 2015

To their credit, Google has tried to be a little more transparent, and last June, Google announced that they had improved privacy controls for their users, and even set up a website to address concerns about how they collect user data. Under a new page in Settings called My Account, you can now configure your privacy and security settings for a number of Google’s services, including Search, Maps, and YouTube, as well as disable Google’s ability to store your web activity and your location history. This is a step in the right direction, although it’s unclear if most Google users really know about these settings.

Bottom Line

Collectively and individually, we need to decide if we are comfortable with companies such as Google collecting vast amounts of information about us and our online habits. And when companies like Google leave us no choice to opt out of their data collection if we want to use their products, we should probably also ask ourselves if their products are really more important than our privacy.