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Google to share user information between services

Google yesterday announced plans to change its privacy policies and start combining information that individual users have provided across a variety of Google products. Coming on the heels of an announcement earlier this month that Google is going to include material from its Google+ social network in general search results, it again raises questions about how much control users have over their personal information.

Google’s explanation for the change is that they want to treat you as a single user whenever you are logged in to your Google Account. This means that information from Gmail, Google Docs, YouTube, Google+ and other Google products can all be used to deliver “a simpler, more intuitive Google experience” as yesterday’s blog post put it.

Google also offered some examples of how this sharing might work. If you have recently watched a Pink video on YouTube and you subsequently enter pink in the Google search bar, then Google can assume you are looking for information on the singer rather than the color. In another example, Google might be able to let you know you’re going to be late for a meeting based on your calendar, your location, and an assessment of local traffic conditions.

Of course, a more seamless Google experience also means more targeted marketing. Google freely admits that sharing information across more of its platforms will allow it to deliver more relevant ads. Expect those same ads that accompany your search results to start appearing at the top of your Gmail account or to be embedded in your YouTube videos.

It’s this additional web tracking that has raised concerns with privacy advocates. “These privacy policy consolidations have always led to a lowering of overall privacy standards,” wrote Marc Rottenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in an e-mail to technology web site CNET. “That was the same experience with the Gmail privacy policy when Google Buzz was introduced.”

Google’s move to consolidate information across its various platforms mirrors Facebook’s recent attempts to capture more information on its 800,000 users through the introduction of dozens of highly personalized Timeline apps.

There is no doubt that Google, Facebook, Yahoo and others are doing everything they can to maximize their share of the $32 billion U.S. online advertising market, and that means making sure that ads reach the right audience. In doing so, they are accumulating ever larger databases of personal information and individual preferences.

It remains to be seen whether these changes by Google will attract the attention of regulators. Both Google and Facebook recently settled with the FTC over previous privacy complaints, and there are many that will argue that these latest moves offer the perfect opportunity to fight back against a worrying trend of over-sharing. 

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