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Google's data sharing raises anti-privacy fears

Staff Reporter

Google is under fire for plans to collate data on individual users across all of its websites that can be used to target them with advertising.

Google is under fire for plans to collect data on individual users across all of its websites and merge the information into a single profile that can be used to alter the person’s search results and target them with advertising and services.

Users will have no way to opt out of being tracked across the board when the search company unifies its privacy policy and terms of service for all its online offerings, including search, Gmail and Google+. The move is being criticised by privacy advocates and could attract greater scrutiny from anti-trust regulators.

“If you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services,” Google’s director of privacy, product and engineering, Alma Whitten, wrote in a blog post.

After the new policy comes into effect, user information from most Google products—such as YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps, Google+ and Android mobile—will be treated as a single trove of data which the company could use for targeted advertising or other revenue-raising purposes.

An article in the Washington Post raised concerns about details of people’s private meetings, health, politics and finances becoming part of their digital dossier kept by Google. Confidential discussions via Gmail of a meeting location might be transferred to Google Maps without the user’s consent, for example.

Personalising search features
“There is no way anyone expected this,” Jeffrey Chester, executive director of privacy advocacy group the Centre for Digital Democracy, told the Washington Post. “There is no way a user can comprehend the implication of Google collecting across platforms for information about your health, political opinions and financial concerns.”

Google said it expected to roll out the revised guidelines on March 1, consolidating more than 70 privacy policies covering all of its products.

Right now, users of Google products have to agree to a new set of privacy policy and terms of services almost every time they sign up for a new service. They are able to opt out of certain services like Google+ or Picasa.

“In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.”

The announcement comes a few days after Google’s decision to personalise its search feature drew criticism over privacy and anti-trust issues.

Skewed results
Twitter, Facebook and MySpace have launched a tool called Don’t Be Evil—which is Google’s motto—that claims to neutralise any attempt by the search engine to skew results towards its Google+ service.

Online privacy has come under scrutiny from anti-trust regulators as a handful of web corporations have been accused of compromising user privacy to attract advertisers.

In 2011 Facebook settled with the American Fair Trade Commission (FTC), agreeing to be regulated for a period of 20 years whenever it decided to change its privacy policy.

In 2010 the FTC settled charges with Twitter after the agency alleged the social networking service had failed to safeguard users’ personal information.

US regulators are reportedly looking into whether Google manipulates its search results to favour its own products and have expanded the investigation to include Google+.—

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