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Escaping Google (and Facebook)

On March 1, Google is changing its privacy policy. Should you be worried?

Yes and no. Google will not be collecting any more information than it's already amassing. What’s changing is that Google may now combine information from your different Google accounts into one profile. (Here's a link to the new privacy policy).

So, if you have a Google account, your email information, search history (and behaviour), Google+ activity, Google Calendar appointments, Google Map views and YouTube viewing habits will be combined into one database that Google can use to tailor advertising and search results.

In other words, Google won’t be collecting any more information about you than they already do. They’ll just be using it more efficiently.

Google says its new policy will benefit its users:

“Our recently launched personal search feature is a good example of the cool things Google can do when we combine information across products. Our search box now gives you great answers not just from the web, but your personal stuff too… But there's so much more that Google can do to help you by sharing more of your information with… well, you. We can make search better—figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too. For example, it's January, but maybe you're not a gym person, so fitness ads aren't that useful to you. We can provide reminders that you're going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day.”

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it. Personalized search, relevant ads, meeting reminders. What’s wrong with that? Plenty, as Kevin Drum points out in Mother Jones: “It’s bad enough that Google can build up a massive and--if we’re honest, slightly scary--profile of my activities, but it will be a lot worse when Google and Facebook and Procter & Gamble all get together to merge these profiles into a single uber-database and then sell it off for a fee to anyone with a product to hawk.”

Google isn’t doing that (yet), but, as Drum points out, they could do so with another tweak of their privacy policy. 

The problem is that it’s getting more and more difficult to avoid Google. Want to find directions? Google Maps. Want to arrange a meeting? Google Calendar. Share a document? Google Docs. Post or watch a video? YouTube.

I'm not just picking on Google. Facebook, which has had even more privacy issues than Google, is also becoming difficult to avoid. More and more websites have Facebook “recommend” buttons. Many groups, businesses and governments are setting up Facebook pages and events -- requiring you to join Facebook if you want to participate in their activities. Facebook's new Timeline feature and plans by Netflix, Spotify and others to share your viewing, listening and reading activities automatically are making Facebook even more omniscient and intrusive.

Another issue that’s getting increased attention is the so-called “filter bubble”. Eli Pariser, former executive director of MoveOn, popularized it in his book of the same name. Pariser points out that Google results (and those from other search engines such as Yahoo and Bing) vary according to your previous searches, location and other factors.

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