Google Prepares to Share Your Contacts with the World… Again

Cameron Camp just blogged about the announcement that Google is going to delete all private profiles at the end of July. This really wouldn’t be a big issue if it wasn’t for the fact that Google is as two faced as you get on privacy and has a history of neglecting user privacy, such as when they launched Buzz and exposed the contacts of people who were unfortunate enough to have a public profile. That’s the clincher… you must have a profile to use certain Google services, but you were able to keep the profile private.

The decision by Google to expose contacts without notification or consent does not appear to be an accident. Google apologized for causing users concern, but not for exposing the contacts. In fact, due to a settlement with the Federal government Google has apologized again, but not surprisingly, in vague language. The apology posted on March 30th says “We’d like to apologize again for the mistakes we made with Buzz.” But still does not call exposing private contacts a mistake. You would think that the company who produces one of the top sets of communications products in the world could communicate, but that seems a bit beyond the grasp of Google. In fact Google seems to be trying to hide the fact that they are going to be deleting private profiles. Google owns Gmail, but have you received anything in your Gmail inbox about the change? I know I haven’t. You might expect Google to know a thing or two about SEO, but if you search for “Google to delete private profiles” you will have to do a lot of digging to find the news from Google themselves.

If you look at the Google “Privacy Center” the double-speak is alarming

Do you see a problem with this?

We have five privacy principles that describe how we approach privacy and user information across all of our products:

1 Use information to provide our users with valuable products and services.
2 Develop products that reflect strong privacy standards and practices.
3 Make the collection of personal information transparent.
4 Give users meaningful choices to protect their privacy.
5 Be a responsible steward of the information we hold.

This Privacy Center was created to provide you with easy-to-understand information about our products and policies to help you make more informed choices about which products you use, how to use them and what information you provide to us.

Item number 3 says “Make the collection of personal information transparent”. This means you do not know what information is collected and obviously you cannot control what you are unaware of. Item 4 says “Give users meaningful choices to protect their privacy”. Sorry, but hiding what you are doing does not allow users to have meaningful choices. Items 3 and 4 are at odds. The launch of Buzz showed that Google fell flat on number 5, being a responsible steward of the information they hold and Google has never specifically apologized for exposing contacts without user consent and has never indicated they would not do so again. It is precisely for this reason that the decision to require public profiles for many of their services is so alarming.

If Google takes exception with anything I say, then maybe it is time to send their management and PR organizations back to school to study communications and then clearly, concisely, and openly, and proactively communicate. To start with, Google can clarify what “mistakes” they were apologizing for when they launched Buzz, it might not be the same thing you call a mistake.

Randy Abrams
Director of Technical Education
Cyber Threat Analysis Center
ESET North America

Author , ESET

  • jim02

    Hi. Just wondering:
    1. Which Google services require you to have a profile? I use GMail, Reader, Blogger, Google Sites,  Google Places, Webmaster Tools, Analytics, and probably some others that I've forgotten about, but I do not have a profile. Is it Buzz or Google+ that require profiles? And if so, don't people who use those types of services want public profiles? As I don't use Facebook, Twitter, or any other social networking site, I don't really understand the issue here. 
    2: In Google's statement, they said that any private profiles would be deleted, not publicized, which made me happy. (Even though I deleted mine long ago, so it really doesn't affect me.) Other than that, it seems public profiles will become public. What am I missing?

  • Leo Davidson

    Where does it say they're going to force us to share our contacts? (i.e. The list of people we are connected to or that we have in our address book, depending on what that means.)
    I'm not saying they are not going to do that; I just haven't seen anything saying they have, and there's no link to anything saying they are going to in this post or Cameron's post.
    My understanding was they were just going to make your profile's name and gender visible, so that people could search for you (and anyone with the same name) by name and request to be friends (or whatever they are calling their equivalent).
    The geder can be set to "Other" so that just means the name of your profile is being exposed, which doesn't seem too onerous to me (unless you have a really unique name, that couldn't possibly belong to anyone else, and don't want anyone to know you even have a Google profile).
    I'm happy to admit it if I'm wrong, but wondering where it says otherwise and, if we've both seen the same statement from Google, which one of us has mis-interpreting things. FWIW, I've seen other people using the same (mis?-)interpretation that I am using. (i.e. Other people have said it's just name and gender that are being made public, not your contacts list. Other people could be wrong, of course.)

  • Randy Abrams

    Jim, I am not sure which of the Google services require a profile. Buzz and Google + do. For Buzz you did not have to have  apublic profile and that enabled people to use Buzz while maintaining a higher level of privacy. The probem is that when Buzz launched it automatically added people from your Gmail contacts to your Buzz contacts and if you had a public profile it essentailly shared your gmail contact list with everyone. That is the problem. Google has not said that they would not do this again and has yet to specifically apolgize for shring Gmail contacts without notice or authorization.

  • Randy Abrams

    Leo, goggle doesn't say they will force you to share contacts, but they didn't say they were doing that when they launched Buzz and shared Gmail contacts of users with public profiles. Google has yet to specifically will not do the same thing and Google has yet to specifically apologize for doing it in the past.

  • jim02

    Ok, thanks for the response. I see your point. I never did use Buzz, so I didn't fully understand the issue at that time either. 

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