Google offers more than 60 different services: YouTube, Google Maps, Google Books, Picasa, Google Wallet, and so on. The new policy lets Google tell almost all its products (Google Wallet, a financial service, is one exception) what you do and like, automatically, across the board. (The services used to have a range of separate sign-up protocols. Google says it has always collected this information and is gathering nothing new; it will share it with advertisers but not sell it to other third parties. It says it's being transparent.)
When you register for a Google product, you give it personal information. That will get shared, as ever. Even if you're not signed up for anything and, say, just use the original-brand Google Search, Google still gets info, but not with your name on it.
Your IP address tells Google your (fairly precise) location - that gets shared and sold. Any device you use has a letters-and-numbers ID; that, too, gets shared and sold.
"Google's not new or special that way," says William L. Weaver, associate professor of computer and information science at La Salle University. "Most Web vendors have been doing this for years."
What can you do to maximize privacy? You can delete your search history, delete cookies, use privacy settings (such as Do Not Track, if your browser offers it), or use various proxy techniques. A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project of the Pew Research Center, out Friday, shows that only 38 percent of folks knew how.
Some people are upset. In a Feb. 22 letter signed by three dozen state and territory attorneys general, including Delaware's Beau Biden and Pennsylvania's Linda L. Kelly, the National Association of Attorneys General called the policies "troubling." Folks who use one Google product might want to keep their information there and not have it shared around.
Google cold-shouldered that letter, and it ignored a European Union request to hold off on the changes. EU Commissioner of Justice Viviane Reding ruled that the new policy violates EU law. On March 5, she said that the French cybersecurity bureau CNIL was reviewing the policy and Google's "noncompliance" for a Europe-wide response.
The Pew study shows how split we are between our addiction to browsing and our yen for privacy.
Among the 2,253 adults surveyed, 83 percent used Google Search. Everybody loves Internet searching. Ninety-one percent said they always or usually find what they're after. A surprising 73 percent said the info is accurate and trustworthy, 66 percent that it's fair and unbiased.
When asked about privacy, however, folks turned uneasy. Seventy-three percent didn't like search engine companies keeping track of them to personalize search results. Why? It felt like an invasion of privacy. Also, 65 percent disliked the use of such information to rank search results, because that might limit the results they saw. And 68 percent didn't like being tracked so ads could be targeted to them precisely because they were being tracked or analyzed.
"It reflects a real tension for people with the Internet," says Kristen Purcell, director of research for the Pew Internet Project. "On one hand, Internet searching is a necessity, and people like how easy and user-friendly it is. But underlying that is this concern about privacy."
Pew took its poll before Google announced the changes, so Purcell wants to ask again next year. "It will be interesting," she says. "The Google changes have brought this unease back into the public conversation."
"People feel creeped out about this sharing of private information," says Joseph Turow, professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication and author of The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Work. "But they are allowing it, partly because they want to get stuff done, also because they don't know how to stop it, and because they don't yet see an urgent reason to do so."
No big deal, say other folks - especially the under-30s world, which knows Google does all this and isn't bothered. Blogger Hashim Fannin speaks for many: "In the end it's still the same company with the same information about the same person. The difference is now they will be able to use that information to better cater to you. . . . I don't see the big issue with that."
The Pew study showed that the younger the respondent, the less bothered.
Weaver says, "I'm a no-big-deal, bring-it-on type guy. I'm an admirer of data-mining, and in those terms, this is fantastic. It seems to be legal, and it's not radically changing much.
"But," he adds quickly, "I'm sympathetic to people's fears of being tracked." And he readily agrees that "privacy as we used to think about it? It's a goner."
Been gone a couple of decades now. Bye. And a whole generation of people doesn't care. They're used to it. And they cope. "One method I see my students use," says Post, "is having multiple identities online, so there's no one place that can amalgamate all your information."
"Unfortunately," says Weaver, "if there's someone out there who wants to use your information in nefarious ways, there's not a lot you can do to stop them."
"The challenge now," Post says, "is not to make little laws to try to protect 'privacy.' That kind of privacy is gone. The question is how to prevent people doing bad things with that info."
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @jtimpane.