Google Prompts Its Users For a Privacy Checkup

Everyone is racing to show up high in Google search results, but have you ever imagined what it would be like to get featured on Google’s home page?

OK, back to reality, guys – for better or worse that place is reserved for Google Products only! And as much as we are all used to the neat and simplistic blank page with the way too familiar Google logo and a search bar, we, as sworn Internet junkies, quickly discern any change of design the page may undergo.

So, here it is! The latest featured link on Google’s homepage, from 18 June, redirected us to the comprehensive Google Privacy Settings page. Below you could read a very useful and easy-to-follow walkthrough for the rabbit hole of Google privacy settings.

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But before we go there, it would be quite useful to discuss the general stand of Google on privacy and to try to understand the basics of Google Search.

GOOGLE IS A PERSONALIZED SEARCH ENGINE

Being a personalized search engine, Google’s goal is to best define each of its users’ interests and preferences like favorite topics, sources of information, bloggers, and online businesses.

In order to succeed in this endeavor, Google is tracking its users, gathering as much information as possible about their location, browsing history, online interactions with people, websites, and search engines. And those are only few of the things that Google monitors while you are reading your favorite column, watching a funny video, playing, chatting, liking, commenting, rating, and even retweeting online.

When a search engine keeps such a prolific database of your online persona on record, it is only normal to start to worry about the privacy of your data.

There are many online initiatives (Reset the Net), internet browsers (Tor), browser extensions (Ghostery), and search engines (DuckDuckGo) that attempt to inform about the huge threats to privacy that online users face while surfing on the net. Maybe due to this raising online privacy awareness companies are trying to adapt and offer more flexible, less privacy intrusive services to its customers. Maybe, and just maybe, Google is also trying to adapt its platform and offer more “freedom”, i.e. privacy to its users, or at least it attempts to educate users of their right to limit the search engine’s data collection and tracking processes.

As it comes to private and personalized search engines, there is a lot to keep in mind. For starters learn the basics by skimming through the following detailed infographic comparison between the personalized and a private search engine, called DuckDuckGo vs Google.

And while Google is the perfect example of a search engine that faces certain privacy issues as it comes to data collection and re-distribution to third parties, it also undergoes gradual transformations to adapt to the privacy-thirsty online community:

  • Under the Right to Be Forgotten Rule, established by the EU, Google is obliged to delete some incriminatory long-time past stories from its search results. And while initially Google aimed to do that on a national level only, EU is attempting to broaden the scope of the rule and apply it globally. Russia is pushing this act further and trying to make Google delete a larger selection of user-related content from its search results even if the search engine has not been provided with specific links to such content or any explanation as to why the content is perceived incriminatory by the online user.
  • Another innovative privacy-related amendment to Google search results is its attempt to “censor unauthorized nude photos” also referred to as “revenge porn images”.


All in all Google is as personalized search engine as it gets, thus the reason why it is so interesting to look up the privacy settings that the ordinary Google user may tackle with.

PRIVACY CHECKUP

The Privacy Checkup link featured on Google’s home page (check the screenshot above) takes us to an interesting list of 4 different sectors whose privacy settings you can control:

  • Google+ profile and sharing settings
  • YouTube sharing
  • Personalized Search Experience
  • Ads relevance


Let’s start from the first sector:

1. Choose what Google+ profile information you share with others

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Don’t get distracted by the beer background – we have some privacy check to conduct!


First you get to select which of the four tabs listed on your profile (photos, videos, +1’s, reviews) are to be visible to the public – a pretty straightforward process that should take you no more than a few seconds to opt in/out of.


Scrolling further down this page you’d see more interesting options for your privacy audit:

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Let’s be honest: Google+ is hardly a social network that the standard online user is tempted to sign up for. After the last year’s retirement of Google+ creator, this particular Google product suffered several changes, including a serious workforce outflow where many of the project teams shifted to other projects, including the company’s mobile platform, Android. That being said, I suppose you won’t be surprised to learn that the majority of Google+ users fall to the somewhat tech-oriented crowd or to that of the social media experts.

Regardless of the low popularity of Google’s social network, if you are still having fun on the platform and are regularly interacting with the community, you might be a member of quite a few G+ groups. Here is the place where you can verify your privacy account settings.

As you can see in the screenshot above, you could brag about your community posts by adding them to a special tab on your profile. Me being less of a show-off, I prefer to pass on this opportunity and leave my comments visible to the community members I address only, but it is up to you and your agenda, really. If you are after popularizing your expertise and brand, you’d best add that tab and let your profile visitors get to know about your opinions and interactions with the community.

Moving on to Photos and videos, now it gets really interesting! This is definitely a setting you wouldn’t want to miss. Read on carefully:

If you shared a photo publicly, it may be featured as a temporary background display on select Google products. We’ll let you know via email if one of your photos gets featured.”

So, if you have publicly shared a high resolution photo of you and your dog, for instance, playing happily on the lawn, you might become eligible for promoting Google products.

How does this sound to you? Well, yes, they’ll inform you of this “image borrowing” by email – but do you really read everything you get in your inbox, especially an unexpected message from Google, saying:”Google is featuring your image in its new ChromCast or Google Fiber promotion campaign”? Your first reaction would be – yeah, right the spammers are getting really creative nowadays – and you’ll hit DELETE. Or maybe …

Here’s your chance to get your 15 minutes of fame … or this is your chance to keep your photos private and free of any commercial abuse whatsoever – again, it is up to you to decide what works best for you.

Find my face feature is a Google project long abandoned for privacy concerns. Yet here it resurfaces again, and maybe such technology leap is not that shocking to the online users of 2015. In 2011 the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt explained why Google discontinued the facial recognition project:

“As far as I know, it’s the only technology Google has built and, after looking at it, we decided to stop … I’m very concerned personally about the union of mobile tracking and face recognition”

Today you have a chance to opt out of such top-notch service and decline the polite invite: “Find my face in photos and videos and prompt people I know to tag me”. But what are we actually opting out of – from Google prompting our friends to tag us when an image of us is found somewhere online; or from Google not searching and matching our face with the image database online? A good food for thought, don’t you think?

Shared Endorsements – here’s another interesting privacy setting to discuss. Shared endorsements is another way for businesses to take advantage for free of your online input for brand promotion campaigns and online marketing initiatives.

Do you want to become an online brand advocate for any company by simply hitting +1, sharing, reviewing, or commenting on content you’ve found online – now you can, sometimes without even realizing it!

Here are some examples shared by Google. They aim to illustrate the shared endorsements feature and the way you could indirectly boost a company image in “commercial or other promotional contexts”.

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The last example of FREE shared endorsements by Katya Klinova (in the image above) is added to PAID advertisement in the Google Search Results. Interesting how everyone (both the business and the search engine) get to take advantage (tangible reward in terms of revenue) of your Google+ profile image, name tag, and online activity, except for you.

The key thing to remember here is that you cannot opt out of the Share Endorsements program altogether. You can only limit your face and name exposure in paid ads, but you don’t have the say if your name and face show in the regular search results as custom recommendations.

So share endorsements – are you in or out?

2.Manage what you share on YouTube


We move to the second of the four main privacy setting sections: YouTube.

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Set your likes and subscription preferences according to your needs – no brainer here.
You have an option to lock your YouTube activity feed for both new visitors and/or returning subscribers by editing your Browse View feature. Just enter your YouTube profile and on the left-hand side hit Edit – a menu like the one showed in the following screenshot will pop up. Then press “Edit channel navigation” and you are there.

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Going back to the Google Privacy Checkup page, there are some additional YouTube settings left to go over.

The Video Privacy allows you to set your videos from Public to Private or Unlisted.

The Playlist Privacy offers the same privacy options. Just head to your Playlist page in your YouTube profile, select a Playlist to edit, and press Playlist Settings. You will reach the privacy settings menu:

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3. Personalize your Google experience

Two Privacy Group Settings checked – two more to go!

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The Personalize your Google experience settings consists of a list of 6 distinct setting groups. Each of those offers the option to delve a bit deeper into the issue by pressing: MANAGE ACTIVITY.

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When you hit “Get started”, from this pop-up window you will be taken to the same list of six setting groups, only this time the explanations would be worded a bit differently. So choose whatever format you understand best and fill in your privacy preferences. For your ease we will go over the initial list and add info from the second, whenever necessary.

Web & App Activity – under this sector you are asked for permission to:

Include history from Chrome and other apps in your Web & App Activity.

As previously mentioned, Google’s trying to gather as much information on your online activity as possible. In January 2012, Google integrated the information they had on their users across Gmail, YouTube, search, and 57 other Google services.

It is only a matter of time to integrate the info gathered via Google Chrome as well. At the given point we have the option to refuse this integration and keep our browsing history, articles read, apps used, and sites or content looked up in Google search results somewhat “private”.

If you feel like you want to grant Google more information about your online activity, turn that switch on and let’s move to the second privacy setting of the group:

Location History – basically Google tends to track your device movement and by recording this info it is able to “create a private map” of your past, current location, and the places you tend to visit often. Tracking your each and every step has its positive sides, as Google puts it:

“Location History helps you get useful information – for example, automatic commute predictions, improved search results, and more useful ads on and off Google”

With this being said, there is not much room to hesitate upon, so moving on to:

Device Information – by turning this setting on you will give Google permission to: store your contacts, calendars, alarms, apps, music, movies, books, and other content … the status of your devices – for instance, whether the screen is on, the battery level, the quality and duration of network connections like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, touchscreen and sensor readings, and crash reports.

On or off?

Voice & Audio Activity – we have covered facial recognition, right? Well, this option will further enrich Google’s “senses” and add to it voice recognition abilities. Your persona will get much more tangible with this setting; voice search is only a single aspect of this voice recognition ability. Not to start any conspiracy theory, but let’s say that Google starts processing voice “commands” or conversations apart from those that refer directly to the engine like “OK, Google”. And wait to hear that:

“Your private Voice & Audio Activity stores some voice and other audio to your account. A recording of the following speech/audio, plus a few seconds before, will be stored.”

Sounds like a comprehensive service to me, don’t you think?

YouTube Search History – do you wish to keep your YouTube history? Well, this will surely improve Google recommendation capabilities, and you don’t want to cripple them from offering you better “video recommendations in other Google products”.

YouTube Watch History – the same as above.

NOTE that all of the above-mentioned options, if disabled, are tagged as “Paused” which hints for a temporary solution. An interesting choice of wording, I’d advise checking back those features from time to time as to see whether certain changes in the policy have been implemented without major public announcement. You know features and product merges are frequently observed scenarios. Such service modification would allow the service provider to change the format of the services rendered and maybe that could have a direct impact on the Privacy Settings of its customers, just saying – keep an eye on this page.

4. Make ads more relevant to you


We finally reached the final group of Privacy Settings: the ads settings.

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By clicking MANAGE YOUR ADS SETTINGS you are taken to a page where you can decide what kind of info to provide to Google products (Google search, Gmail, YouTube and GMaps) or to the Google ads around the web. The information opt-out options are pretty basic: you can limit the type of private information Google uses for ad targeting, including your gender, age, languages, and interests. You can block specific ad campaigns that you consider to be too obtrusive or – here comes the best part – you can opt out of interest based ads.

This is a privacy setting that I highly recommend you to select. Advertisers who have access to your interests via Google have the power to bombard you with “relevant ads” all around the web. And imagine what a nightmare that could be:

One day, let’s say, you have trouble sleeping. You search for some online pill recommendations and from that day onward wherever you go online, whatever site you visit – news sites, travel blogs, kids DIY toys and crafts – you will see a pharmaceutical ad on a sleeping pill you had once the indiscretion to search on Google.

Having covered that, it is safe to say that this would be the end of your Google Privacy Checkup Round.

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Of course, if you wish to get to the bottom of it all you can follow the BACK TO MY ACCOUNT link and see if there are any stones left unturned.

I really recommend visiting all of the links and read all of the pages indexed on the My Account collective page. Conduct a Security Checkup:

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Move to your Gmail Settings and don’t forget to set the Find My Face feature in order to ensure some basic privacy online.