Your Gmail account could embarrass you

By Team Digit | Published on 18 Feb 2010
Your Gmail account could embarrass you

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Unintentionally, Google has created a major buzz about its new social networking service, ironically named Buzz. By automatically turning people’s Gmail email accounts into social networking ones, Google may have broken the trust the account holders have about their privacy. Google certainly seemed to have an idea that they might be invading personal space, making several serious modifications to the Buzz service soon after its launch. But the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) believed that this was not enough, and filed a formal complaint [PDF] with the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday, requesting more changes to the service.

What exactly did Google do wrong? How did they manage to get these regulatory bodies riled up? In a statement by EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg, the fault seems to lie in not providing a choice to consumers, about if they wanted to join Buzz or not. "E-mail is for private messages. You sign up for social networking to communicate publicly with people, Google tried to turn e-mail into social networking, and that's where they ran into trouble." The EPIC believes that Google indulged in unfair or deceptive trade practices that violate the Federal Trade Commission Act. To begin with, Google never asked people if they wanted to join Buzz. When users logged into their accounts, many might have been irritated/underwhelmed by the ‘offer’ to “Check out Buzz”, and simply continued on to their inbox, by clicking the “Nah, go to my inbox” button. Little did these users know, regardless of whether they did check out Buzz or not, the service was activated.

While this at first might seem deceptive but in the end, relatively harmless, the ensuing breach of privacy when users began to use their Buzz service certainly is not. Buzz users first public (automatic) posting was a list of their most frequent e-mail contacts. According to the EPIC complaint, this is “deeply personal information”, and Buzz made it public. Who you choose email is decidedly your own prerogative, and making the list public can cause potential embarrassments, and reveal skeletons in what was till now your own very private, secure, closet. Those who emailed prospective employers about new jobs for example, would now have those contacts displayed as “followers” on their Buzz page, letting anyone see them, even your current employer. Lovers, doctors, attorneys, anybody you emailed frequently, would now be visible to all. "Users were not explicitly warned that their lists would be automatically visible to the public... Anyone looking at a newly activated Buzz user’s following list would know that the list indicated which people that user communicated with most often."


Apart from just causing potential embarrassment, the EPIC says that Google has broken the law by disclosing these e-mail contacts – “Improper disclosure of even a limited amount of subscriber information by an e-mail service provider can be a violation of both state and federal law,". "An attempt by an e-mail service convert the personal information of all of its customers into a separate service raises far-reaching concerns." Even after modifications, Google has not addressed the issue satisfactorily according to the EPIC, and frequent email partners will become “followers”, unless the user prevents that. By emplacing frequent email contacts by default, Google may have paved the way for unintended disclosure of personal information by users themselves.


The entire issue rests on the fact that things are done automatically, by default. Rosenberg states that Gmail users should have been given a choice to sign in to Buzz before it is activated, instead of enabling them to opt out of the service after.


Rosenberg claims that Google in its headlong rush to compete with social networking giants such as Facebook and Twitter, blithely ignored privacy policies, and “tried to take advantage of its market position" by making all Gmail users (all several millions of them) into Buzz users in one unfair move, playing catch-up by cheating.
Users can be assured (at least those who have not yet suffered in the hands of Buzz) however by the statement Google made to, stating that it was working hard to make the necessary adjustments to Buzz, keeping "user transparency and control top of mind”.


Some of the actions that the EPIC wants the Federal Trade Commission to enforce on Google include making Buzz a completely voluntary service, stop using private email contacts as the base to compile lists of “followers”, allow Buzz users total control over what information they are displaying, and to explicitly provide notice and request consent from users before making further changes to their privacy policy.


This blunder by Google could not have come at a worse time, with users still reeling from Facebook’s privacy scare a few months ago and ready to revolt against further infringements of their personal space.


Team Digit

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