/ Technology

Google’s single privacy policy – can one size really fit all?

Woman holding scissors with tape measure

Google has ditched its 60+ individual privacy policies in favour of a single policy that it says is ‘a lot shorter and easier to read’. Great for time-saving, but I have serious questions about how my data will be shared.

Google claims that the new single policy ‘covers multiple products and features, reflecting our desire to create one beautifully simple and intuitive experience across Google’.

In theory it’s a move to be welcomed – who reads a single privacy policy start to finish – let alone 60 of them? And as Google argues, it will ‘ensure that you can move across Gmail, Calendar, Search, YouTube or whatever your life calls for, with ease’.

But, just as I’ve never believed in one-size-fits-all clothing (it either swamps you or cuts off your circulation), nor do I believe in a single policy for Google’s ever-expanding range of products and services.

As a technology journalist I’m familiar with most, but not all, of Google’s product portfolio; these include social networking site Google+, YouTube and webmail service Gmail.

For me, there’s a world of difference between an email I’ve sent to a friend and a video I’ve chosen to share – one I’d prefer to keep private, the other is designed for sharing. How can a single policy meet both these needs?

Merging data blurs boundaries

As well as creating a single privacy policy Google has said that, as of 1 March 2012, the information across these services will be linked so that information is gathered in one place. For example, a user’s Google search terms can be used to recommend content elsewhere – when they next use YouTube, for example.

This degree of data-sharing makes me uncomfortable, and I’m not alone. Interviewed by the BBC, a campaigner for the Open Rights Group, Peter Bradwell, said:

‘Does this simplicity come at the expense of strong boundaries between Google products? Will details that users thought might be private on one be revealed in unexpected ways on another?’

This is of particular concern when it comes to one of Google’s lesser-known products, Doubleclick. This is Google’s advertising network, which tracks products you’ve looked at online and covers about 80% of the web. It’s used to serve you targeted advertisements.

Currently, Doubleclick data isn’t merged with the rest, but if it were your search results would reflect practically every site that you visit.

Google’s umbrella spreads far and wide

Another problem is that I suspect most users don’t realise that sites such as YouTube fall under Google’s umbrella. They treat this, and Google search, as separate services. Each requires you to sign-in separately, so a single privacy policy makes little sense.

What really galls me, however, is that Google has served these changes up as a fait accomplis. As the company’s website says: ‘If you choose to keep using Google once the change occurs, you will be doing so under the new Privacy Policy and Terms of Service’.

So like it or not it seems I’m stuck with the simplified one-size-fits-all privacy policy. As with the clothes, I’m not entirely comfortable wearing it.


I agree with that. I found the old Google privacy policy somewhat opaque, perhaps because of my somewhat opaque brain. In any case, I object to Google, or anyone else for that matter, gathering information about my activities on line; innocent though these are. What really puzzles me is how they do it. At any given time there must be a few million Google searches going on and trillions of bits of data floating round Google. They capture this? They process this into meaningful information? They target information into targeted adverts just for me and they store this information for a number of years? Is there a computer big enough to do this? How is this stored? If each individual computer sends Google it’s own data code at the beginning of each search, Google has to grab this, together with a few billion others, and put it somewhere. It then has to visit each of these and decide what to do with what it’s grabbed. This is the stuff of science fiction. Perhaps there is a “Techy” out there who can explain all of this. All I know is that there’s money in it for someone somewhere or they wouldn’t be doing it!

“its own data code” Sorry.

Google has done a fantastic job but the rot is certainly setting in. Getting involved with social networking is – in my opinion – the worst thing that it could have done. If Facebook is anything to go by, it could end up with an enviable number of users and some fairly damning criticism.

Michael Powell says:
2 February 2012

I have avoided all social networking sites so far, even when nominated by a dear grandchild; but one can hardly avoid using Google nowadays. That is why I follow this discussion with interest.

We tend to take Google for granted. Remembering back to the early 90s when the Web was new compared with Gopher and other Internet services, it was necessary to type Web addresses into the browser (NCSA Mosaic in these days) and the earliest search engines were not much good.

webuser says:
4 February 2012

While some may take Google for granted (I think it is only top search engine in the UK, with much lower ‘market share’ than others in every other country, including the USA), I think in the UK part of its growth has been the inability of the media to use words like “search” when seeking out information, so on a radio show one might hear a journalist say s/he “googled for xyz”.

The BBC has especially failed in regard to offering *equal* exposure to services / firms – so one heard on the ‘Up All Night’ show on FiveLive a collection of music tracks not for an “MP3 player”, but given the title “The iPod 100”.

I use several PCs for work and leisure, so I will be keeping one system for each individual GMail account I use, and then have some separate machines (linux or iMac) for general web browsing, if necessary, using a different ISP. I don’t intend to let Google gather too much about my use of their services, especially because any firm on US soil is subject to US authorities, which might be considered to trample the rights of the individual, compared with the UK (though I often wonder how far behind them we are, given the significant investigatory powers under the various Acts concerning prevention of Terrorism, etc).

Apologies if anyone thinks I’ve strayed a bit too far off the topic of Google, but as a “big brother” body, their buying power may mean some (independent) service I have happily used for months/ years could go under the Google umbrella in future and all data about my usage added into the Google soup, if it wasn’t for me using hundreds of unique e-mail addresses (one per web site) which might limit the linking abilities a tad!

Good point web user. Perhaps we need to start thinking about alternatives if Google becomes too irresponsible. I don’t fancy anything that carries the Microsoft name (Live Search, Bing or whatever it’s called now). Alta Vista was my choice before Google made great strides and maybe Lycos and Webcrawler are still on the go. Many have been keen on Ask.com but I am not impressed by it.

Do let us have your suggested alternative for Google.

Pharahiti says:
1 March 2012

As I share some of the concerns voiced here I recently started using a new search engine called DuckDuckGo (http://duckduckgo.com/) – precisely because it claims it does not (I quote) ‘collect or share personal information’.

The quality of results seems pretty good, though it lacks some of the alternative searches Google provides such a map, shopping and image searches. Definitely one to keep an eye on though…

Their privacy policy is available here: http://duckduckgo.com/privacy.html

JM says:
5 March 2012

I am concerned that my email provider, Virgin, uses Gmail. This implies that Google can access my emails. I have asked Virgin, but got a ‘technospeak’ reply which I don’t understand.
I have lost trust in Google, and so I have stopped using Google as my search engine, as the simplest solution, and will actively avoid any Google product.

romeolima says:
27 April 2012

A few days ago Google rolled out it’s ‘New Look’ as a compulsory feature. This created a lot of chaos and anger particularly amongst Mac users as the interface is very unreliable. To my horror, I found that my user name was linked on screen with my real name. If I had wanted to use that I would have done so, but it would appear that my YouTube and Facebook registrations, neither of which have profiles, have been snatched by Google and used as if they own me. I think it’s illegal.

If you avoid Google what computer or tablet operating system do you use then?

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Do you think Apple is ethical then when it comes to privacy compared to Google? When I mean hand held I mean smartphones and tablets. I do worry about privacy all the time and security, maybe I’m unnecessarily paranoid. I have a chromebook laptop but I don’t really use chrome app. I have never come across a laptop that isn’t a mac-book, Windows or chromebook. I am on a tight budget so wouldn’t be able to afford a mac computer. Never had an iPhone. Currently got a Samsung Solid feature phone with 3G but it’s not a smartphone.