Is This the End of "Don't Be Evil" For Google?

By Mat Honan on at

In a privacy policy shift, Google announced today that it will begin tracking users universally across all its services — Gmail, Search, YouTube and more — and sharing data on user activity across all of them.

The change was announced in a blog post today, and will go into effect on the first of March. After that, if you are signed into your Google Account to use any service at all, the company can use that information on other services as well. As Google puts it:

"Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you're signed in, we may combine information you've provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we'll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience."

This has been a long time coming. Google's privacy policies have been shifting towards sharing data across its services, and away from data compartmentalisation for some time. It's been consistently de-anonymising you, initially requiring real names with Plus, for example, and then tying your Plus account to your Gmail account. But this is an entirely new level of sharing.

What this means for you is that data from the things you search for, the emails you send, the places you look up on Google Maps, the videos you watch in YouTube, the discussions you have on Google+ will all be collected in one place. It seems like it will particularly affect Android users, whose real-time location (if they are Latitude users), Google Wallet data and much more will all be shared with the rest of Google. And if you have signed up for Google+, odds are the company even knows your real name. Considering you already share a lot of data with Google, and there's a common shared opinion that Google already knows everything about you, sharing data across services isn't necessarily a bad thing.

All of that data history will now be explicitly cross-referenced. Although it refers to providing users a better experience (read: more highly tailored results), presumably it is so that Google can deliver more highly targeted ads. (There has, incidentally, never been a better time to familiarise yourself with Google's Ad Preferences.)

So why could this be the end of "don't be evil"? Because Google's changing. Google built its reputation, and its multi-billion pound business, on the promise of its "don't be evil" philosophy. That's been largely interpreted as meaning that Google will always put its users first, an interpretation that Google has cultivated and encouraged. Google has built a very lucrative company on the reputation of user respect. This latest move might be marketed to you as a bonus for greater customisation, but really it's about ads. Google is an ad company after all, and its seems as if it's putting its needs first. If you don't want your data shared across the rest of Google you have a few weeks to pull your data out, using its data-liberation service, but if you want to use Google services, you have to agree to these rules.

Google's philosophy speaks directly to making money without doing evil. And it is very explicit in calling out advertising in the section on "evil." But while it emphasises that ads should be relevant, obvious, and "not flashy," what seems to have been forgotten is a respect for its users privacy, and established practices.

Among its privacy principles, number four notes:

"People have different privacy concerns and needs. To best serve the full range of our users, Google strives to offer them meaningful and fine-grained choices over the use of their personal information. We believe personal information should not be held hostage and we are committed to building products that let users export their personal information to other services. We don‘t sell users' personal information."

This crosses that line at least. It eliminates that fine-grained control, and means that things you could do in relative anonymity today, will be explicitly associated with your name, your face, your phone number come March 1st. If you use Google's services, you have to agree to this new privacy policy. Yet a real concern for various privacy concerns would recognise that I might not want Google associating two pieces of personal information.

It's also an explicit reversal of its previous policies. As Google noted in 2009:

"Previously, we only offered Personalised Search for signed-in users, and only when they had Web History enabled on their Google Accounts. What we're doing today is expanding Personalised Search so that we can provide it to signed-out users as well. This addition enables us to customise search results for you based upon 180 days of search activity linked to an anonymous cookie in your browser. It's completely separate from your Google Account and Web History (which are only available to signed-in users). You'll know when we customise results because a "View customisations" link will appear on the top right of the search results page. Clicking the link will let you see how we've customised your results and also let you turn off this type of customisation."

The changes come shortly after Google revamped its search results to include social results it called Search plus Your World. Although that move has drawn heavy criticism from all over the web, at least it gives users the option to not participate. [GoogleBlog via Washington Post]