Skip to main content

Google’s good new privacy news

Chris Hoofnagle, adjunct professor of information | May 25, 2010

This is definitely not evil: Google just announced two improvements to its service that have important pro-privacy implications. Consider using them:

  • Google Search over SSL: Remember when Google’s CEO said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Well, if you really have to do it, consider using SSL search. At least fewer people will know about it. That is, Google will know your search terms, but they will be obscured from other people who might want to snoop upon you (think jealous spouses, your ISP, and especially, your employer). The service also disables referrers.

    There are some limitations to SSL search, but still it should be viewed as an important technological step forward for privacy, particularly for employees whose employers monitor their internet use. Here are instructions to set up SSL by default in Google Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer.

  • Google Analytics Opt Out: Today, Google announced the creation of a browser plugin that allows users to opt out of the company’s analytics service. This too is a very important development. Under the Network Advertising Initiative Guidelines, when an individual opts out of targeted advertising, they are still tracked. That is, they don’t receive targeted ads, but the tracking for analytic purposes still occurs! It makes little sense from a privacy perspective. But from advertisers’ perspectives, they still want to know who goes where and what’s clicked on.

    Google’s new tool addresses the underlying privacy issue in this tracking, with respect to Google Analytics, but not for some of its other products, such as AdSense.

    Advertisers are very upset about Google’s move (this in itself should be a signal of how important this opt out is). To my knowledge, no other web tracker offers such an opt out. And the fact that Google allows an opt out for analytics will make it more difficult for its competitors to oppose such a right when these issues are finally confronted by the FTC and Congress.

I was very critical today of Google and Facebook in the San Francisco Chronicle, for what I argue is a public relations approach to privacy at the two companies. These two announcements demonstrate Google’s potential to solve some privacy problems. Much work still needs to be done, however. As my oped suggests, the core privacy problem relates to Google and Facebook’s success in becoming intermediaries. The privacy issue no longer is third party information sharing–it’s how first parties collect, use, and keep data.