By Jon Brodkin
There are some not-completely-foolproof ways to hide from Google, but first let’s talk about what’s changed. Prior to today, Google had more than 70 privacy policies for its various products. But with the company trying to create a seamless experience across search, Gmail, Google+, Google Docs, Picasa, and much more, Google is consolidating the majority of its policies down into just one document covering most of its products. This will make it easier for Google to track users for the purpose of serving up personalized ads.
An example? Google search results can already bring up Google+ posts or photos that have been shared with the user. “But there’s so much more that Google can do to help you by sharing more of your information with … well, you,” Google said. “We can make search better—figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too. For example, it’s January, but maybe you’re not a gym person, so fitness ads aren’t that useful to you. We can provide reminders that you’re going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day. Or ensure that our spelling suggestions, even for your friends’ names, are accurate because you’ve typed them before.”
Today, Google’s official blog reminded users of the change, saying it had been the subject of “a fair amount of chatter and confusion.”
The updated policy can be read online, and describes how Google collects device information, search queries, cellphone-related data, location information, and collects and stores information on users’ devices with the use of HTML5 technology, browser storage, application data caches, and cookies and other “anonymous identifiers.”
Google recently promised to follow Do Not Track guidelines in an agreement with the White House, but those changes won’t take effect until sometime later in the year. With Google’s expanded ability to serve up personalized ads, the company makes certain privacy promises. For example, “when showing you tailored ads, we will not associate a cookie or anonymous identifier with sensitive categories, such as those based on race, religion, sexual orientation or health.”
So what else can you do? Most browsers today have private surfing modes that you can select. You can visit Google’s “Data Liberation Front” website for instructions in exporting data out of Google products. The Electronic Frontier Foundation also has instructions on removing your Google search history from your account. However, even this is not as simple as it sounds. Disabling Web History in your Google account “will not prevent Google from gathering and storing this information and using it for internal purposes,” the EFF notes.
Google does hand over user data in response to government requests on a regular basis, as noted in the company’s Transparency Report. The EFF notes that disabling Web History “does not change the fact that any information gathered and stored by Google could be sought by law enforcement.”
If your account has Web History enabled, Google will keep the records indefinitely. “With it disabled, they will be partially anonymized after 18 months, and certain kinds of uses, including sending you customized search results, will be prevented,” the EFF states.
For those who are really willing to put some work into staying anonymous, downloading a Tor client may be the right step. Tor encrypts your Web traffic and sends it through a randomly selected series of computers, preventing shadowy third parties from learning what sites you visit or where you’re located. The Tor Project even played a role in helping Iranians get back online after a recent government crackdown on Internet usage.
How will Ars readers handle the Google privacy changes? Let us know in the comments.