Ask the Expert: What You Should Know About Google’s Privacy Policies


Q: “I’ve heard quite a bit about Google’s privacy policies, which were updated in 2012. Google insists that changes were necessary to streamline their policies and to provide a richer and more intuitive user experience, but it still bothers me. Am I right to be concerned about this?”

A: This is a good time to go back and look at the changes to Google’s privacy policies that they implemented in 2012.

Before we get into what privacy policy changes were made, let’s look at what Google already knew about you.

It’s pretty mind-boggling: Google tracks and stores every email you send (if you use Gmail), every search term you look up, every Google chat you make, every conversation you have with Google Voice, every appointment you enter into your Google calendar, and every Picasa picture you store, among other things.

They even track everything you search on for up to six months even when you are not logged into Google! The amount they know about each individual user is quite staggering.

It doesn’t matter if you use ad-blockers or not; this data is still collected about you. And private browser features, such as those on Firefox and Safari, do not stop Google from collecting this data; it only stops website information from being stored on your computer.

Google stores all this information about you in giant databases so they can mine it, target ads with it, and run various algorithms with it.

But all of this is what they already know about you.

What about the changed privacy policies that were implemented three years ago?

The Privacy Policy Changes

In a nutshell, Google’s updated privacy policy changes allow for the consolidation of all the information they collect about you over all their product lines, such as YouTube and Google+.

So, for example, if you search for something, you may see ads for that search term when you are on YouTube. More than 70 company policies are being consolidated into one main policy and about a dozen others. Separate policies will continue for Google’s Chrome browser and its Wallet service for electronic payments.

Here is a video from the search giant explaining its “simplified” privacy policy.

What they fail to mention, however, is that another one of their changes is that if you want to use any of Google’s services, such as Gmail, you can not opt-out of this data collection.

It is this point that has many privacy advocates up in arms.

It begs the question: does our personal information belong to us or the corporations that collect it? Instead of being forced to adhere to these data collection rules in order to use a popular product, shouldn’t we insist that companies give us the option to allow or deny them permission to track and store our personal information? What happens if hackers get a hold of this information?

With these new changes to their privacy policy, Google has said that they are trying to “provide you with as much transparency and choice as possible.” However, if we cannot choose to opt out of their data collection, how much choice do we really have? Google is betting that most of us will find it too burdensome to give up using gmail and other Google products.

It’s all About the Money

Google, along with Facebook and other web giants, want to learn as much as possible about you so they can sell advertising. The more they know about you, the higher the rates they can charge to marketers looking to target people who are interested in certain products, such as sky diving or underwater basket weaving.

Google reports that users who view targeted ads are 37% more likely to click on an ad than those that are targeted randomly. So whatever Google says, the real reason why they want to consolidate as much information as they can about you is for one reason: it makes them richer.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a company trying to maximize their profits. The question we should be asking is: at what cost? Do you have the right to maintain your online privacy and only allow companies to use information about you as you see fit? Or do companies have the right to control whatever information they collect about you for their own purposes?

Changes in 2015

To their credit, Google has tried to be a little more transparent, and last June, Google announced that they had improved privacy controls for their users, and even set up a website to address concerns about how they collect user data. Under a new page in Settings called My Account, you can now configure your privacy and security settings for a number of Google’s services, including Search, Maps, and YouTube, as well as disable Google’s ability to store your web activity and your location history. This is a step in the right direction, although it’s unclear if most Google users really know about these settings.

Bottom Line

Collectively and individually, we need to decide if we are comfortable with companies such as Google collecting vast amounts of information about us and our online habits. And when companies like Google leave us no choice to opt out of their data collection if we want to use their products, we should probably also ask ourselves if their products are really more important than our privacy.


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Kent Lawson

Kent Lawson is the CEO & Chairman of Private Communications Corporation and creator of its flagship software PRIVATE WiFi. He combined his extensive business and technical experience to develop PRIVATE WiFi in 2010. The software is an easy-to-use Virtual Private Network (VPN) that protects your sensitive personal information whenever you’re connected to a public WiFi network. Follow Kent on Twitter: @KentLawson.

16 Responses

  1. Kat says:

    Are there better options? If I switch back to MSN/Hotmail or Yahoo, can I trust that my information will be less exploited?

  2. Paul says:

    “Collectively and individually, we need to decide if we are comfortable with companies such as Google collecting vast amounts of information about us and our online habits. And when companies like Google leave us no choice to opt out of their data collection if we want to use their products, we should probably also ask ourselves if their products are really more important than our privacy.”


  3. Tom Conner says:

    If I’m searching for stainless steel hardware, and they target me with adds for stainless steel hardware, that’s fine, its my personal and password info I want secret, you only search what you want people to know you’re looking for anyway….

  4. Eric says:

    One of the problems is that many of us expect to get services for free. But the services aren’t free; instead of paying with money, we pay with providing information about ourselves that is used to sell advertising. That’s how companies such as Facebook and Google make money.

    One alternative: Pay for the services you use. You can get decent no-ad email for as little as $5 a year, for example (I use FastMail), and there are plenty of companies that will host your files for a reasonable amount.

    There is also at last one search engine (DuckDuckGo) that doesn’t track users.

  5. KAHSR says:

    This whole thing leads us to “Big Brother Eyes”. With Nobama’s Patriot Act BB doesn’t even need a warrant (not they couldn’t get one in the beat of your heart) they can demand to see every little thing you do or say online.

    Google knows that many millions of people are hooked on their email system, it is the best I have seen. Many million also use Google Search as their main search engine. There is a place we could do without. Google+ is pretty much null because of FB.

    The question remains, how do you get a million or two people to stop using Gmail? I myself have many Gmail accounts that I use daily, I would prefer not to try to move all of my important emails to another sevice.

    We the users are between a rock and a hard spot and Google knows this. All we can depend on is the If you are not aware of this Organization you should be.

    Well friends we have a lot to consider here, how much of your life do you want collected by strangers and hackers.


  6. thomas ray says:

    good info .didn’t know the details THANKS

  7. Dee says:

    It’s called “personal” information and control of it should remain with the individual person, not corporations. Algorithms are one thing but my e-mails, chats, photos and other personally identifying items need to remain under my control. I have never used Google for exactly this reason – I realized long before g-mail and YouTube that I couldn’t trust them.

    Michael Pollan advises that we avoid foods that tout their health benefits (like the latest “healthy” cookie I saw recently) because they are highly processed and manufactured by companies that can afford TV commercials. When did you ever see a commercial for kale?

    By the same token, I steer clear of corporations who are so eager to “provide you with as much transparency and choice as possible.” Like Facebook, which highlights its overwhelming desire to “connect” us all, these companies are out to make a killing *at the expense of our privacy.* Yes, make your profits but don’t require me to sacrifice any remaining shred of the “personal” I still have left. What they’re doing now is like being given a big warm hug just so the dagger can be buried that much deeper in the back.

    Until we are willing to be inconvenienced enough (by changing e-mail providers or search engines, or not logging into YouTube) to send a forceful “NO WAY,” this will stay business as usual.

  8. roboknight says:

    That Google has changed its policy is news. That Google won’t let you opt out is news. That they are tracking you’re every online move in some fashion: not news. Point to almost any company that has a strong online existence, and you’ll find they are tracking you if you use their products. Most people would probably be surprised to learn how much Apple can actually piece together about you from the various things they anonymously track on a phone. It has gotten to the point that I’m more worried about what someone really WANTS when they sell me a product. In fact, I’m not really sure how many “products” are sold anymore. Everything wants to be thought of as a “service” so that companies can tap your wallet directly, every month. It appears the only way many will even do business any more. Either that or “add-ons” that actually make a product worth using.

    Many people will remember the study done a few years ago that determined you could track most people, anonymous or not, online just by collecting enough data. Google has, in this respect, achieved the ultimate: They can know you better than you know yourself.

    Privacy isn’t really an issue anymore. There really isn’t any. If you are online, you are public. If you thought there was any privacy, that boat has pretty much sailed. It sailed with the introduction of Google and the internet that always remembers. The best we can do now is attempt to control how the information is used, and I’m not sure that can even be done.

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  11. Companies use this to find out about individuals’ activities on the internet. Web publishers use them to determine what advertising to target to a particular person.

  12. Data is encrypted in-transit and at-rest. If you choose to access these files offline, Google will store this info on your device.

  13. Whatever Google says, the real reason why they want to consolidate as much information as they can about you is for one reason: it makes them richer. Fact.

  14. “Whatever Google says, the real reason why they want to consolidate as much information as they can about you is for one reason: it makes them richer”. Fact.

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  1. August 6, 2012

    […] I mentioned in a blog post a few months ago, the amount of information Google collects and stores on each user is quite […]

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