October 27th, 2011
Users must be alert about having their real identity from Google+ replace pseudonyms in other Google services
Google’s work to integrate its Google+ social networking site broadly with its other services could raise red flags for users who want to closely guard their privacy.
It’s valid to raise concerns over Google’s decision to integrate Google+, which carries a real-name requirement for users, with other Google services people have been using with pseudonyms for years, said John Verdi, senior counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in a phone interview.
Google’s nightmare scenario would be for a critical mass of users to inadvertently green-light Google+ integrations only to later complain that they didn’t know their pseudonyms in certain services would be replaced by their Google+ real name.
If that were to happen, Google could find itself in a privacy controversy that it can ill afford. The U.S. government has the company on a short leash, having mandated audits of its privacy policies and practices for the next 20 years after a privacy firestorm ignited with the launch of the now-closed Buzz service last year.
Buzz, a microblogging and social networking service, debuted with an integration with the Gmail webmail service that exposed users’ private e-mail contacts publicly and without authorization.
Since launching Google+ this summer, Google officials have been stressing that it makes it simple and intuitive for members to control what they share, with whom and how.
During this initial period, when Google+ has operated mostly as a stand-alone social networking site, consensus has been that, yes, its content sharing and privacy controls work well and as advertised.
However, Google has now started to integrate Google+ with other services, and it remains to be seen whether a critical mass of users will fully understand the interaction, cross-functionality and data sharing between Google+ and other Google services.
Google officials, from the CEO on down, are gung-ho about Google+ and it’s clear that the push to fuse Google+ with other company services will be extensive.
Google has redesigned the interface of the Google Account control panel, whose previous version clearly listed Google services available to users as part of the account, along with links to the services and some of their settings pages. The new control panel lacks that list of services.
Previously found at google.com/accounts, the control panel is now part of the Google+ site domain, another sign that Google+ is becoming the command center for privacy controls and settings across Google services. The new control panel includes a link to the old control panel, but it’s not clear for how long the latter will be available.
The road to propagate Google+ across the Google product line is just starting, and the potential for a misstep at some point seems high, considering that at issue is the online identity of potentially hundreds of millions of people.
In some cases, shielding their real identity is of life-and-death importance for some people, such as spousal abuse victims and political dissidents in totalitarian regimes.
“If Google wants to be the broker in the relationship between pseudonyms and real names, there will be all sorts of ways that that could go wrong across their many services. If you’re a user in Syria depending on your pseudonymity in order to stay alive, that’s not a very comforting situation,” said Peter Eckersley, technology projects director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, via e-mail.
In other words, now more than ever, Google must make sure that it fully complies its famous “do not be evil” philosophy.