On March 1, Google will institute its new privacy policy, which will eliminate the 60 individual policies it has now and consolidate them all into one integrated policy.  Google says that nothing has changed, and that they are not collecting any new data.  However, with the new policy, they can use the information they collect across your searches, YouTube watching, Google + postings and all of the other Google product uses to provide “a beautifully simple, intuitive user experience that treats consumers as a single user across all our products.”

Google’s position is that there is nothing new, and that we are all going to benefit from this new policy.  But is that true?  As with most policies, the answer is “it depends.”

To explain the concern that some people have, I need to refer you back to an old example.   In August 2006, AOL published 650,000 users’ search histories on its website. A random ID was assigned to  each user’s logs, and no names were listed.  However,  several users’ identities were readily discovered based on their search queries. For instance, the New York Times connected the logs of user No. 4417749 with 62 year-old Thelma Arnold. These records exposed, as she put it, her “whole personal life.”

Since that time, we have all gotten much more dependent on the search capability, and generally our searches are in Google.  We watch YouTube videos assuming we are in the privacy of our own home.  We use Google+ believing that we are communicating with our friends and colleagues.  Further, we may not even be aware of the number of services we use that are all owned by Google.  So, not only are we using the services more than we did in 2006, there are more of them that we are using.  Even if none of them are associated with our names (and that is unlikely), it would be easy to identify many of us in the same way that the New York Times did in 2006.

You might ask, “so what?”  Well, as is often the case, I worry most about the teens and young adults who might search or behave in a way that might have long term implications for their lives and careers long before they have those careers.  But, even for the rest of us, it is a concern.  While Google claims to have the motto, “do no evil,” who knows what they will be in the future.  Further, suppose that someone steals the information from Google and begins to be a disruptive force in people’s lives.  Is it really so important for corporations to be able to target me specifically to purchase their products?   Does marketing provide a compelling reason for me to lose my privacy?

Even if those things were not an issue, many of us have different components to our lives that we do not want to confuse.  When Google merges all of these different kinds of information, they will merge all of those selves.  Let me explain with an example from Amazon.  Amazon prides itself on being able to recommend relevant purchases based on your past buying history.  When my son was a religious history major, I purchased books about a variety of religions.  My husband likes to read history, and I often give him history books for holidays.  I admit that I love mystery novels and do purchase them from Amazon.  I also use Amazon to purchase wedding and baby gifts for friends and relatives, and other items as gifts.  So, when I look at Amazon’s recommendations, I often find them amusing because they try to merge all of that information together into one profile and often miss the boat.  This same “unified profile” idea is what Google is going to be selling, and maybe publicizing. This will make it difficult to keep a “professional image” and “personal image” that are separate.

If you are not yet concerned, look at the information that Google has kept about you.  If you have a Google account, login and direct your browser to https://www.google.com/history.  You will then be looking at every search you have done since you got your Google account.  There may not be any individual searches that are troubling, but what kind of image do you present when you look at them all together?  These search data can reveal sensitive information about you, including facts about your location, interests, age, sexual orientation, religion, health concerns, and more.  Is this information the business of anyone else?!

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting individual rights in the digital world, recommends that you remove your past search history before  March 1, so that it is not included in the future profiles.  If you have gone to your own history page, you can do this by selecting “remove all Web History.”  A complete discussion is provided on the EFF site.

In the future, you also need to remember not to login to Google before searching or viewing YouTube videos.  This will keep them from linking your information to you.  They will still keep the information about the use, and perhaps link it to your IP address, but at least it will not be linked to YOU.  Further, you might consider using different search engines for different kinds of information.  You can use Google for some searches, Bing for others, and Yahoo for still others.  This makes it harder for any one of them to understand too much about you. You might even want to use anonymousing software, such as Tor or Anonymizer, to hide not only your name, but also the computer.  For more information about how to protect yourself while surfing, check out the Six Tips to Protect Your Search Privacy from EFF.

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