Bad Form, Google. Bad Form.

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 12, 2010


So Google, being the cutting-edge company that it is, has decided to create a Facebookish, Twitteresque entity called Buzz. Many people are still not sure what the point of this is; like Google Wave, Buzz seems to be somewhat redundant, and although it tries to engage in social networking, its stripped down look certainly doesn’t make Buzz a match for Facebook. One can also write quick messages, as on Twitter, but since people are already using Twitter, there is no point to duplicate the effort on Buzz, now is there?

Up until now, I thought that Buzz was a fairly inconsequential Google development. Not so, however; the creation of Buzz represents a major shift in Google’s relationship with its users. And it’s not a positive shift either:

I received lots of feedback to yesterday’s post “Lawyers (or journalists) with Gmail accounts: Careful with the Google Buzz”. My focus was the privacy implication of Google automatically publishing the identity of people you have communicated with in the past.

What distressed me most is that Google made Buzz automatic. It was folded into Gmail, assimilated your contacts (and email history), and created these first social connections without ever asking permission. If you had ever created a Google Profile (an innocuous webpage that might collect comments you left on Maps or links to your LinkedIn profile), then Google went a step further — it published these social connections in a place accessible to the world. And even if you had not yourself created a Google Profile, your social connections could still be exposed on the other person’s Google Profile.

Don’t like it? The burden was on you to track all this down and make the privacy changes you wanted. Even if you did that, it wasn’t clear that it was even possible to truly “turn off buzz.” Flipping the switch at the bottom of Gmail didn’t work. Who knows how many people have been misled by that. (Google now acknowledges this on one of its support pages. All that switch does is “remove the Buzz label from your Gmail account,” or in other words, hide it within Gmail.)

Even after clicking “turn off buzz”, your Buzz connections persisted, they were still shown on your profile, and Buzz was still active (as you could readily see from a mobile client, such as an iPhone).

(Link via Ben Domenech.) Of course, the implications of having one’s privacy violated in this manner are pretty awful:

. . . I certainly don’t have many concerns about those who are cheating on their spouses or are leaking sensitive information to journalists– they will survive (even though the future of whistle-blowing does not look very bright in our increasingly overexposed information environment).

Nevertheless, I am extremely concerned about hundreds of activists in authoritarian countries who would never want to reveal a list of their interlocutors to the outside world. Why so much secrecy? Simply because many of their contacts are other activists and often even various “democracy promoters” from Western governments and foundations. Many of those contacts would now inadvertently be made public.

If I were working for the Iranian or the Chinese government, I would immediately dispatch my Internet geek squads to check on Google Buzz accounts for political activists and see if they have any connections that were previously unknown to the government. They can then spend months on end drawing complex social circles on the shiny blackboards inside secret police headquarters.

But potential risk from disclosing such data extends far beyond just supplying authoritarian governments with better and more actionable intelligence. For example, most governments probably already suspect that some of their ardent opponents are connected to Western organizations but may lack the evidence to act on those suspicions. Now, thanks to Google’s desire to make an extra buck off our data, they would finally have the ultimate proof they needed (if you think that this is unrealistic, consider this: the Iranian authorities have once used membership in an academic mailing list run out of Columbia as evidence of spying for the West).

So: Google has just set up a nightmarish privacy situation, one that can compromise the personal relationships, job safety, and even physical safety of its users. In what parallel universe was this considered a good idea?

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