(There should be a video below. For some reason, embedding it isn’t working. Hopefully it’ll be fixed soon. In the meantime, click here to watch it!)
“At Google, we make privacy a priority in everything we do.” Except when it comes to rushing to launch a new product.
Not too long ago, Google launched a new product called Buzz, as I’m sure you all know. If Twitter and Flickr and WordPress and maybe even Facebook had a lovechild that was raised by Google (custody issues…), you’d have Buzz. As of now, Buzz is kind of a mess. People have the typical knee-jerk “I’m-going-to-hate-this-because-it’s-new” reaction. Most people who use it are simply having their Twitter posts feed directly into it. People are using it as kind of a public-pseudo-Facebook wall, amassing people who don’t know each other into conversations that are not related to the original post (or the original poster). Eh hem. Case in point. (There are potential privacy issues in that too, although many are brought upon oneself—exposing email addresses, sensitive information in a public setting, etc.)
When Google unveiled this new feature (on everybody at once), they overlooked a pressing privacy issue. Essentially, the service made you automatically follow your most frequent contacts, and vice versa. People had access to your feed and information without your consent. This leads to instances like this one (via Techcrunch):
I use my private Gmail account to email my boyfriend and my mother.
There’s a BIG drop-off between them and my other “most frequent” contacts.
You know who my third most frequent contact is?
My abusive ex-husband.
Which is why it’s SO EXCITING, Google, that you AUTOMATICALLY allowed all my most frequent contacts access to my Reader, including all the comments I’ve made on Reader items, usually shared with my boyfriend, who I had NO REASON to hide my current location or workplace from, and never did.
This privacy breach led to folks being able to determine who their friends, employees, spouses, and more were contacting frequently. As Nicholas Carson of Business Insider discovered, Buzz could expose marital infidelity, anonymous sources, private emails in the workplace, and more. The defaults guessed at who you wanted to expose your information to; Google assumed it knew your friend circle. It was even difficult/impossible to opt out.
Even though Google has fixed most of these issues, it was still a case of awful foresight on their part. Computers are getting smarter and are perhaps decent at choosing who your friends are or who you’re most interested in, but even if this technology is flawless, making these lists public and available to those around you is just stupid. Gmail, which Buzz is loosely connected to, is often what people use for private communication. By tacking on this very public feature, without allowing people to opt in, Google crossed some lines that should not have been crossed.
And now for a loose but related connection:
James Grimmelmann, professor at New York Law School and all-out smart guy, posted an awesome recap/analysis of the Google Books Settlement fairness hearing today, where a bunch of parties presented their cases to the judge either supporting or opposing the settlement. Many of the arguments raised against the settlement (from the EFF and EPIC and other digital rights groups) dealt with privacy. Google Books would in essence have access to a large corpus of data—”It can track not just what books you read, but which pages, and what you scribble in the margins”—that would perhaps allow them to tailor ads or sales to an unheard of degree. This would also bring up questions of law enforcement and how this data would be handled by a single entity.
Privacy issues will always be a concern, especially when it comes to Google, but there is perhaps good reason why it should be a top concern. Hadrian Katz, who spoke for the Internet Archive against the settlement, ended his argument with this: Google claims to have taken privacy into account, but perhaps the recent Buzz fiasco is a good example of how seriously Google actually takes the issue.
Update: Technology Review has a cool article on how Google Buzz has changed since its release. Check out the multimedia timeline too!