Google Reader invades your privacy and it's not going to stop
On December 14, Google added a new sharing feature to their popular feed reader and lost me as a user.
Before December 14, Google Reader already had a "sharing" feature, which allows you to share posts with people that you had explicitly identified as friends you wanted to share with.
After December 14, Google took everything you've ever "shared" and started broadcasting that information to everyone in your Google Talk contact list. This is the new default setting. If you don't like it, the burden is on YOU to navigate through the settings to opt out of this new feature. Merry Christmas.
Google assumes that everyone in your Google Talk contact list is a close friend of yours, ignoring the fact that we often chat with supervisors, customers, competitors, professors, and ex-girlfriends.
Here's a likely scenario. In the past, maybe you've shared a lurid post about Britney's sex life with your old college buddies. You shared that post with them with the understanding that it was just between you guys. Now Google has unilaterally decided that everyone you have ever chatted with in Google Talk will know that you've read and shared this item.
What if you were a closet homosexual who shared gay lifestyle articles with discrete partners? What if you were thinking of leaving a physically abusive relationship and you've shared spousal abuse articles with the few people you trusted?
Google Bait and Switch Signs of Larger Violations to Come
This is not some random mistake. According to this 9/12/07 post on Wired, this may be part of Google's plan to compete against Facebook:
The overall gist of the video is that Google wants to take its existing set of applications and integrate them around Google Reader. Google Reader will become, not just a way to track news items, but also where you can see what your friends are up to.
Now granted, you can already do that to some extent, but you need to set things up by hand. What Google would like to do is automate and streamline the process — as well as add more data to the mix.
Speaking of Facebook, you might recall the Beacon scandal where Facebook shared its users' online shopping history with all their friends on Facebook. Instead of learning from Facebook's mistakes, rumor has it that Google is considering a similar move. According to Techcrunch:
Given this controversy, you’d think that Google wouldn’t touch anything remotely Beacon-like with a ten-foot pole. But a source familiar with the matter says that Google has contacted at least one Facebook Beacon partner, and perhaps more, in an effort to drum up support for its own initiative for OpenSocial, which it is calling “universal activity streams."
These “universal activity streams” are meant to combine all actions you take online, similar to Facebook’s Beacon, and present them as a line of text in your personal activity feed on Google or an OpenSocial partner site like MySpace or Bebo. Within Google, for instance, these feeds could appear in Gmail, iGoogle, or Google Reader. The universal activity stream is expected to launch around February or March of next year.
This move with Google Reader is only the first step towards the "universal activity stream." If we don't stand up to Google now, they will make their expanded definition of sharing the default for all your other privacy information, such as search results, map queries, Google Docs, Google Notebook, or god forbid, Google Health.
Earlier this year, a report by Privacy International ranked Google dead last in terms of privacy compliance, stating that there is "an attitude to privacy within Google that at its most blatant is hostile, and at its most benign is ambivalent."
Here are some of Google's worst offenses:
- Google maintains records of all search strings and the associated IP-addresses and time stamps for at least 18 to 24 months and does not provide users with an expungement option. While it is true that many US based companies have not yet established a time frame for retention, there is a prevailing view amongst privacy experts that 18 to 24 months is unacceptable, and possibly unlawful in many parts of the world.
- Google has access to additional personal information, including hobbies, employment, address, and phone number, contained within user profiles in Orkut. Google often maintains these records even after a user has deleted his profile or removed information from Orkut.
- Google logs search queries in a manner that makes them personally identifiable but fails to provide users with the ability to edit or otherwise expunge records of their previous searches.
- Google fails to give users access to log information generated through their interaction with Google Maps, Google Video, Google Talk, Google Reader, Blogger and other services.
Google's Arrogant Defense
The worst part of this whole ordeal is Google's unwillingness to recognize they did something wrong. In response to angry complaints in its feedback forum, Google came up with this excuse:
The "share" feature was always intended to imply some amount of publicity. That's why we used the term "share" and had shared items marked as public by default on the Settings > Tags page. Google Reader Guide.
This is what Google is talking about. In the old system, the items you choose to share are published on a page with a obfuscated URL like this:
http://www.google.com/reader/shared/45388x91944y71z67112 (not an actual working link, just an example).
You "share" this link by explicitly telling your friend about this URL. Technically speaking, this page can be accessed by anyone who knows the address. That's what Google means when it claims the old system "imply some amount of publicity."
But come on. Look at that URL. If you were not told about that URL, there's no way you could access that page. Clearly the 20 random numbers in the URL is an indication that some amount of privacy is expected, and that we want the URL to be seen only by people we explicitly shared it with.
Now Google wants to expand the definition of "shared" to include anyone you have ever chatted with on Google Talk (or worse, anyone you've ever emailed, if your Gmail setting automatically adds anyone you've emailed to your Google Talk contact list).
After getting hundreds of complaints, the Google team brushed off their concerns with this little gem:
All of us on the Reader team are paying attention and are aware of the feedback from this group. However, we do need to balance all these concerns with keeping the feature useful for those who like it and use it. (There aren't many of those on this thread, granted, but this is only a small subset of the people using this feature.) (emphasis mine)
An angry Google user gave this blistering response:
The way these people have handled the current user feedback has shown that they are in reality *not* interested in hearing what people think, contrary to what the original post says. It would be safe to say that regardless of what kind of feedback they get, it will be in the minority because most people don't care that much about the services they use.
So the people that give feedback will automatically, by their very nature of caring, be in the minority. Saying that they can't really take such groups into account means that they were in fact lying when they said they wanted feedback.
But who needs feedback when you know your company does no evil?