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Google policy brings security into question


By Kirsten Clark




Since Google announced its plans for a new privacy policy, which will go into effect March 1, users have been abuzz with concerns, and the change has attracted the attention of media outlets internationally.

More locally, IU students using Google services on a daily basis might find themselves affected in March.

Although IU partnered with Google to launch Umail, one of the two services students can choose from for an email provider, Vice President of Google Enterprise Amit Singh said in a public statement, “Enterprise customers using Google Apps for Government, Business or Education have individual contracts that define how we handle and store their data.”

Google Spokesperson Tim Drinan said their contract with IU supersedes their general privacy policy. Google declined further comment.

But for students who use Google services outside the University’s contract, John Duncan, lecturer at the School of Informatics and Computing, said there are some changes consumers should know about.

WHAT’S NEW
“Essentially, prior to this announcement, Google was in a position where they had a lot of different products,” Duncan said. “You have to remember — people think of Google as the search engine company, but they have had a lot of success with some of their other things.”

This included not just the search engine, but also their ownership of YouTube and services such as Gmail.

Prior to the change in policy, Duncan said each service was its own sort of “mini-company.” They were all owned by Google, but each had its own team of employees and its own individual data storage.

“So, for example, when you went to YouTube and you searched for videos, they could only use that data to change the way YouTube was presented to you and maybe suggest other YouTube videos,” he said. “But if you went and ran a Google search, they wouldn’t suggest stuff out of your YouTube history because they were separate.”

Google will transition to one central data storage for the users of all its products. This also means information can be shared between Google services.
The change lends itself to advertising, which Duncan said is Google’s main funding.

“So what’s going on here is that Google has realized that, increasingly, the information they want about users is only available when they have the full profile of what a user does on the web,” he said.

Although Google’s new policy says the changes will help Google users connect with other products and services relevant to their interests, Duncan said the changes are largely a net loss for users.

WHAT’S AT STAKE
For those who have different behaviors for different Google products, Duncan said the policy yields “annoyance and mild privacy concerns.” If a consumer uses YouTube to search music videos but uses Google’s search engine for scholarly research, he said it could be aggravating to find that Google search, having pulled information from YouTube, recommends music-related search returns.

The bigger concern, Duncan said, is the data footprint.

“All of this information Google wants to have access to in terms of your history has to be stored somewhere, and previously, a lot of little pieces of your history were stored in a lot of separate places,” he said.

Now, there will be one centralized data cache and a larger risk if the data is
compromised.

“Google’s a big company, and they do their security seriously because of that, but it only takes one failure for a lot of people to get hurt indirectly,” Duncan said.

HOW TO AVOID IT
Finding ways around Google’s policy would involve creating separate Google accounts for each service and using separate browsers when using those services.

“If you don’t want this to affect you, it’s going to take a lot of work,” Duncan said.
Duncan said he believes the majority of people won’t care enough about the new changes to go through the trouble to avoid the policy.

“There are absolutely people where you can go up and ask them, ‘Is this okay?’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I don’t care,’” he said. “The fact that that’s most people is why the company is doing stuff like this.”

THE BOTTOM LINE
“The sky is not falling,” Duncan said. “There’s been a lot worse stuff, but people should educate themselves.”

To find out how to protect your information online, visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation website at eff.org or visit protect.iu.edu.

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