Google+ misses an opportunity - Privacy is an important part of openness

Filed Under: Featured, Google, Privacy, Social networks

Google Plus logoGoogle's new "Plus" social networking service attracted more than 10 million users within a week of its public beta. That is a remarkable number of people signing up for an unfinished social network when the field of options is already quite crowded.

Why would so many people flock to Google+? The one thing almost everyone that I know references is privacy and control, or at least the hope that it might achieve that end.

Twitter logoTwitter users are happy with the openness of Twitter... You know what it does: It broadcasts your messages to the world in bite-size chunks. No hidden agenda, no surprises... It's public.

LinkedIn logoLinkedIn is great for professional networking, again mostly public. I don't use it to share links of cats playing keyboards or cool movie quizzes. For many of us, aside from finding employment, it is a way to stay in touch with people we've worked with in the past.

Facebook logoFacebook? Well, it started out as something exclusive and private, then became open and not so private. Nearly everyone who cares about being social is on there, so it continues to march along 500 million users strong.

Why do we need an alternative to Facebook? Much of it started with comments Mark Zuckerberg made in January of 2010. He stated:

"A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they've built, doing a privacy change - doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner's mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it."

Many are uncomfortable with Facebook's privacy controls, the wishy-washy attitude toward changes and the attitude their CEO has towards privacy in general.

This is where Google had a golden opportunity to provide something that could scale to the same heights and remedy the grievances many have with Facebook.

When you first logged in, you could see how it was intended to be a blend of public and private, and enjoy the ease with which you were invited to privately share things, just within your Circles.

Pseudonymous circle with zero membersLast week Google began suspending accounts of people who used pseudonyms, which they considered a breach of the Google+ common name policy.

What they seemed to have missed is that the very foundation of privacy is identity. Simply knowing my postal code or birth date is meaningless without a name to associate it with.

Creative Commons image courtesy of Jack Dorsey's Flickr photostream

By requiring people to only use their real names, unless they just happen to be a celebrity, they have eliminated the ability for people to be private in any meaningful way.

It's important to remember that it's a social network. Google will not be issuing passports like the nation of Facebook.

Google suggests your pseudonyms could go in the optional Nicknames field, which you can choose to make searchable and public.

This solves Google's problem, but erodes privacy even further by associating your "real" name with your pseudonym. I believe this is actually destructive to privacy, not helpful.

I hope Google reconsiders their current policy, as this makes them just another also-ran in the social networking game. You don't need to bully people into disclosing personal information to stop spammers and impersonators.

My advice to Google? Get your lawyers and your programming gurus together and see if you can create a place that is safe for all of us to share in ways we are comfortable with. If you can do that, you have a good chance at being a leader rather than a Facebook wannabe.

Creative Commons image of "What's in a name?" photo courtesy of Jack Dorsey's Flickr photostream.

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39 Responses to Google+ misses an opportunity - Privacy is an important part of openness

  1. sunbimr · 1496 days ago

    ...but you missed the point, folks are playing games on Facebook by not being who they are despite that it says you can't pretend to be someone you are not.
    Google is just trying to solve that problem in advance.

  2. Louise · 1496 days ago

    I have a friend with a rather uncommon singular name- she has no first, middle or last name, just one name. Google+ keeps kicking her off and has denied her a profile based on what is legally her name, even after she has supplied a copy of her drivers license. It's kind of offensive, well, really offensive actually, to not be able to use ones given name on one's own profile online. Last I heard they told her to pick a common first and last name in which to register with, to which she is planning to explain to them that means she would have to lie and give a fraudulent name at that point.
    It's making Google+ plus look a bit silly and even a bit overbearing that they continue to argue with her on this. If the state of Oregon can accept that she has had only one name since birth, why can't Google?

  3. writer=idiot · 1496 days ago

    total idiot...
    do you know how many people are stalked because of fake names? on fb, for the people who play games, most people have 5-10 alternate accounts.
    all of them have fake names, and no info.
    does anyone realize how easy it would be to stalk people? i think that by requiring real names, google plus did the right thing.
    also, under google plus settings, you can change who can find you, so i don't see why using a real name is such a big deal.
    cons of reals names < cons of fake names.

    • Halfey Halphstein · 1496 days ago

      so what's your real name then?

    • TG2 · 1495 days ago

      ? "... stalked because of fake names?" So I go by the name JJTwinkleToes and that means someone's going to stalk me? OR if I put my REAL name there.. people would then have additional ways to more easily link me to what I post.

      I post as JJTwinkleToes, and that I'm going to be out of town for a week, then somewhere I have to have posted in association with my JJTT name where I live.

      I put my REAL name out there.. and then discuss with people I'm going out of town.. you can bet a scumbag is going to start combing the Phone Book for my name, and start checking on those physical addresses to see if I'm the John Smith that posted I was going away for a week.

      People like "writer=idiot" are just that far out of touch with reality. You do not have security by obscurity *if* you're no longer obscure!

      The bullsh*t google puts out there is just garbage ... the people that **NEED** to know my real name or already know me as my alias.. aren't going to have a problem seeing and or finding me ... but everyone else.. people I don't even know.. they will have to do MORE work to find me than my friends.. and since google+ doesn't allow me to BLOCK all unknown persons.. again its another reason *NOT* to use their chat/social relation software.

      I am really surprised at the level of adoption google claims to have, when having your real name posted, is just a HUGE security flaw in itself... is just the most mind blowing of it all.. people I would have expected to have a better level of security awareness and even THEY go onto Google+ ... just plain stupid! It doesn't matter if I hide EVERY ITEM in my profile.. just having the name out there isn't what *I* want and until it changes.. google+ will not be used by me.

    • Bastard Sheep · 1495 days ago

      The thing is, they're not actually requiring real names. They're only requiring real looking names. They do no verification that the name someone uses is actually their real name until an account has been complained about. This makes your argument against "stalking with fake names" completely redundant and outright wrong.

      For example, if I wanted to stalk someone on Google+ there is absolutely nothing stopping me from creating an account called "Robert Michaels" (note: That is not my real name). I could happily use that account to play games, stalk people, etc etc unless someone reports the account to google, in which case I could then create another one under another real looking name.

      Until Google requires ID verification upon signup, the "real name" you see is no better than any other pseudonym/nickname/handle as far as providing security goes, and simply hurts those of us who actively use and are mostly known by our pseudonym/nickname/handle.

    • DaVince · 1494 days ago

      "does anyone realize how easy it would be to stalk people? i think that by requiring real names, google plus did the right thing."

      This, without a doubt, is a statement that you love the fact that people can stalk each other. Way to go.

  4. I am the ONLY person with my legal name on the planet. I am disabled, low income and female. I have an extensive online presencem, including but not limited to a domain, several blogs, e-ziine articles, radio broadcasts, etc. I do NOT want some stalker knuckle head to come after me. If Google+ requires my legal name, I will NOT USE Google+

    • Conan776 · 1495 days ago


      I'm Conan776 all over the web and have been since before there was a Google. I'm not going to out myself for Google's sake.

  5. Alex · 1496 days ago

    Yeah by requiring a real Name it has done most of us a favor I hate people who change their name 20 damn times and you can never tell who it is. If you want a pseudonyms go back to myspace or go to four chan. A social network is supposed to use your real name; so your friends can find you and there is the block button for a reason it is to stop harassment and other such foolery. So stop your stupid tirade about how you can not be Blowjob Bob and go use your name in your profile like everyone else. If you do not want to fine stay in your cave.

    • Conan776 · 1495 days ago

      Gee, I've been online for 25 years, and I've used at most 5 or 6 names in all that time. On 99% of the web I'm Conan776, the same person; out of all the billions of people online there's only one other Conan776 I've ever run into (he's Vietnamese, I sometimes get his mail). As far as me and everyone I know online, this is my real name.

      Meh, I don't need to stay in a cave, I'll just continue using Twitter as my social network. Sorry you are so offended that I value my privacy!

    • summerseale · 1495 days ago

      You're a real idiot.

      I've been Summer Seale for years and years now. I'm known as Summer Seale for my opinions, my writing, my artwork, my 3D creations and fashion. I've had articles written about me in paper magazines and online magazines. I made a statue for IBM a few years ago in Second Life for their private gathering including the CEO and other top tiers of the company. I've done countless hours of charity work. I've created a particle chamber used as a "Snoezzle Room" for kids with disabilities by real life educators and therapists in Second Life to help teens.

      I could go on.

      Summer Seale isn't my real name. I don't change it - ever - because Summer Seale is still me. I've contributed to things as Summer Seale, my online friends know me as Summer Seale, and I don't see why I shouldn't continue being known as Summer Seale.

      And, by the way, I never was on MySpace and I've never been to 4chan.

    • TG2 · 1495 days ago

      AND alex.. having to block someone **AFTER** the fact is again.. NOT SECURE!

      Are you trying to tell me that your friends don't know you? then perhaps they aren't as good a friends as you thought.. they'd ask you.. "hey what's your user name on ..." or "how do I get you on my ______"

      And lastly.. AGAIN... anyone on Google can say they are John Smith .. so WHERE THEN is there security?

      As further example against your "block" concept... do you think spammers should be allowed to spam you all they want the first time and then you have to "remove" your self from their mailing?

      Or do you think that its ok to add you to "kiddie_porn_watcher_club" without asking your permission to do so?

      If EITHER of those are the case for you, then you immediately loose the arguement with regards to "block after the fact"

      My AIM and YAHOO accounts are set-up the same way.. NO USER is allowed to text me unless they are already on my list.. that means that if someone wants to contact me.. they have to know me.. they usually email.. "hey I tried to get you on AIM"... and then I reply .."yeah I block unknowns, give me your chat name and I'll add you" ... and that's it.. they get on my list because *I* allow them.. that's *ME* taking action to block out the garbage directly!

    • DaVince · 1494 days ago

      4chan is anonymous, not pseudonymous. Shows how much I can trust your words.

  6. Alison · 1496 days ago

    I am wondering what the next step will be. We share something and The Google suspends our account for not being truthful.... "I'm in a relationship" "No you are not!" shouts Google, the protector of Truth and Guardian of the Interwebs. It's all gotten very scary very fast.

    Oh and bollox to the people who think having a pseudonym is about being a stalker or being up to no good in general. I am entitled to write fiction under a pseudonym and I am entitled to protect my privacy about being gay from haters in my family. (Examples may or may not be truthful).

  7. Lilian · 1496 days ago

    It is not only celebrities who need anonymity; a friend who is a child social worker does and so, I imagine, do probation officers. Their real friends know their pseudonym, but they are not easy for their clients to find.

  8. Is this me? · 1496 days ago

    I still don't get why people bother using Social Networks if they want to remain private? Just don't use the damn things - it's not law to sign-up to them.

    Oh, and while we're on the subject, I just tried posting this post with a pseudo-name and a fake email address because I wanted to remain anonymous, and guess what - SOPHOS wouldn't let me... hummm, Pot, Kettle, ?

    • Plenty of other people manage to leave anonymous comments up here - so I'm not sure why you had trouble.

      In fact, it seems to me that you managed just fine. :)

    • Shockwave · 1495 days ago

      I want to stay in touch with my other online friends. That does not mean I want to give my full name, keys to my car, and combination to my house alarm and its address though. Besides, I'm better known through my psuedonym and my pen name than I am by my real name -- people looking for me won't be able to find me unless that's the name that's up there. And all this is without bothering to get into the dangers of someone stealing a friends laptop and the thief looking at my plus account, and getting my name and address and kids' names and mothers maiden name and everything else under the sun.

      I want to socialize. That doesn't mean I should divulge my SSN or any other private data to you though. In the words of the bard, "Just because we're holding hands doesn't mean I want to take long warm showers together..."

  9. Cat Stevens · 1496 days ago

    You f****** i****! Your post is the stupidest post ever written on the whole internet. You're a d********, and your mom is a d********.

    I wouldn't have said that had I been forced to use my real name

    • Paul Ducklin · 1494 days ago

      The fact that you wrote this comment at all is more of a reflection on you than it is on the validity or otherwise of Google requiring something which _looks_ like a real name before allowing you have your say in public.

      Wouldn't you say?

  10. Drew · 1496 days ago

    Bright Line Rules v. Balancing Factors

    Google is great at many things but in my experience customer service is not one of those things. If they are relying on low-level service reps to make decisions then they will necessarily be relying on bright-line rules (eg. all G+ names must be the user's legal name). But as we've seen this issue doesn't easily lend itself to a bright-line rule and instead requires the evaluation of a variety of factors (eg. is there a legitimate reason for the name difference? does this person indeed only have one name? etc)

    So, what to do? Remember: this is a new service and Google is still trying to determine how the service is going to be used. Until they've identified the most likely boundaries it's not feasible to expect them to craft strategies that live within those bounds (not to mention that there might be technical limitations still in play - it might be that a single name isn't allowed by their UI).

    Unfortunately many users have been hurt by the actions of customer service reps attempting to follow the bright line rule of "you must use your legal name." Fortunately Google has been fairly quick to mitigate the damage to these users and work toward a more nuanced approach. However until they've more clearly defined the metes and bounds of G+ I don't believe that we will see the necessary procedures to accomodate these issues. Patience will be required on the part of those of us opting to use this "pre-beta" service.

  11. BBZB · 1496 days ago

    How is anonymity breaking the internet if the internet got as big as it was with anonymity. Its clearly causing MORE problems than its solving (especially since there is no real "problem" to solve) - so it's a fail policy plain and simple.

    Social networks may not be required by law, but neither is posting in your real name. All this is going to do is to make people come up with pseudo-names that just SOUND real. Next step is licensing for registration which I am sure is around the corner.

  12. Anonymous · 1496 days ago

    This is such a large problem because Google is integrating this to other Google services. I don't want to have to use my real name to use youtube, a search engine, read blogs or use gmail.

    Quite frankly, I don't use my real name at work or in my day to day life, why does Google need it?

  13. two cents · 1495 days ago

    I think they're trying to make it more secure... yes - people can and do lie on the internet... you can not know 100% that you're talking to who you think you are. However I think G+ is trying to give you some of that certainty back. Yes, there'll be ways around it most likely... but it may be more complicated and less common.

    Do I think your real name should have to be tied to YouTube or other things like that though? No... at least not for the public to see. I don't care if they want the real name to use the service. If I'm not posting bad content - what do I care if they know who I am? If I want to post privately from the public though, I should have the option not to need to share it publicly. To register with is one thing, to need to tell millions of people I don't know my real information is a different story.

    • Shockwave · 1495 days ago

      All you have to do to circumvent Google's policy is not use a real name. Simple indeed. I shudder to think how many "Harry Richards" are being created in Plus right now.

      I'm better known by my psuedonym. I would like to be searchable by that name or my pen name and not connect it all to my real name. I realize Plus is still being built and debugged. But the Facebook demand that all privacy must be sacrificed upon logging in has infuriated many people. And if Google can realize that many of us DON'T want our real names associated with what we do for fun and to our political and philosophical thoughts, thus allowing HR departments and stalkers access to personal data they shouldn't have, then google can instantly take more than half of Facebook's membership away in less than a week.

      Come on Google. Wake up and realize that for many of us, privacy in the digital age is a very severe problem. It would be nice if we didn't have to use pseudonyms when dealing with strangers who might then look up our info and mail package bombs to our houses to silence us. But that's not how the world really works. Not everyone who comes here is worthy of my deepest trusts. So don't force me to give my name and address and employment history to the Ted Kaczynski's of the internet. Don't make me have to lie just to use your service safely.

  14. StrokerSerp · 1495 days ago

    Listen to your customers G+ ! Out of the gate you have made Facebook more nervous than a long-tailed cat trapped in a room full of rocking chairs.Don't Blow w/No Psuedo's. We are all an email address after all. There's a wiley typist with a wallet behind every one of the myriad oc creative online characters. Don't take that creative expression for granted. That was FB's biggest mistake imo.

  15. Guest · 1495 days ago

    I dont see why this is a problem.

    I have my name, that is who I am in real life. All my friends know me by my name, and they should. I want people to know my name and to be able to find me through my name.

    Then I have my handle. My handle is who I am on the net. All of my net friends know me by my handle, and they should. I want people to know my handle, and to be able to find me through my handle.

    My handle and my name are 2 different things, and they will continue to be that way. But my handle doesnt need a Google+ to share photos and chat with friends. He is perfectly happy on IRC and in forums all across this vast net of ours.

    My name, on the otherhand, which has no link to my handle in anyway, would love to see my neices new dog, hear my best friend talk about his weekend, even see the address to a local get together being hosted by IRL people who know me IRL.

    /I've never used any real information when registering a handle... ever.... EVER

    • Pazo · 1494 days ago

      With due respect, some folks aren't seeing that "social networking" is not only about a Facebook-like world where the purpose is to just find people you already know in real life and share personal photographs.

      That's what is being misconstrued in this debate across the net. Facebook has convinced people that social networking is only one thing - a thing that profits Facebook. They basically branded social networking with "facebook" stamped on it.

      But plenty of people want to (and do) use widespread social networking systems for their chosen identity; not just the name that happens to be on their birth certificate.

      People are cheesed at Google because there is no need for Facebook Part 2. Google made their business "being the internet". They were inclusive to all kinds of people online. Now they're trying to redefine themselves mid-stream with an awkward, full stomp on the brakes maneuver. This is why many of their users are experiencing whiplash.

  16. Ralf · 1495 days ago

    It's not a policy decision Google made because they're mean or they don't understand why somebody would EVER want to use a pseudonym.

    They made this rule because they want to make money.

    Your real name is a valuable asset, even moreso if they can link it to online activity (which Google already does terrifyingly well). Profiles with REAL information are far more valuable to Google's customers: companies that want to sell you stuff or track market trends.

    What? You thought you were a Google customer? You're not. You're the product, to be sold... exactly like FB. The key difference being (Google hopes) that by enforcing strong policies now they'll position G+ as a more valuable commodity than FB's laxly typed data.

    Thus it's not likely Google will back off their policy. The folks who get turned away don't matter, since they're worth nothing to them. That's assuming they get enough "real" people to keep the service vital and important, which they seem to be... 20+ million as of this writing.

  17. Toby · 1495 days ago

    I am of the opinion that it is their site and their rules.

    If you don't like it, don't use it. I don't like it when sites make me put in my postcode when I sign up, but it is their right to ask and my right to bounce off that page if I don't like it.

    I don't think there is much of an argument to demand they have some sort of social conscience about this because having an internet profile isn't exactly a human rights issue.

    Some comments have mentioned that they know people with one word names or have always been known as x, y or z - a fair enough point and maybe they need to address individual cases better, but I know plenty of websites that limit username choice to far more restrictive things, again it is their right to do it and your right to opt out.

    Kudos on the author for starting the discussion.

    • Mrs. W · 1495 days ago

      "I don't think there is much of an argument to demand they have some sort of social conscience. . ."

      There is when Google's own code of conduct tells you they will.

      "'Don't be evil.' Googlers generally apply those words to how we serve our users. But 'Don't be evil' is much more than that. Yes, it's about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services that we can. But it's also about doing the right thing more generally -- following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.

      "The Google Code of Conduct is one of the ways we put 'Don't be evil' into practice. It's built around the recognition that everything we do in connection with our work at Google will be, and should be, measured against the highest possible standards of ethical business conduct. We set the bar that high for practical as well as aspirational reasons: Our commitment to the highest standards helps us hire great people, who then build great products, which in turn attract loyal users. Trust and mutual respect among employees and users are the foundation of our success, and they are something we need to earn every day."

      And on privacy and freedom of expression:

      "Google is committed to advancing privacy and freedom of expression for our users around the world. Where user privacy and freedom of expression face government challenges, we seek to implement internationally recognized standards that respect those rights as we develop products, do business in diverse markets, and respond to government requests to access user information or remove user content."

      You can read the rest here:

  18. Mark · 1494 days ago

    There's a huge fallacy going around that real names - or what you THINK sounds like a realistic name due to your personal biases - somehow make the internet "nicer".

    But some of the worst people online proudly display their one an only real life name and even their photograph. In the actual Google+ discussion threads on this topic, some of the most abusive people have proudly used their real name and photos - all the while flaming anyone who disagrees to hell and telling them to "GTFO".

    Trying to "scare straight" the internet by forcing people to feel accountable for everyone seeing a wallet name by which they can be tracked, only deters the weakest willed troublemakers at the expense of -everyone's- privacy and right as an adult to choose what parts of themselves to show others.

    True jerks, and real brass plated assholes, have been harassing people off- and on-line forever.

    The Zuckerberg Clan has been harping on how "anonymity makes everything worse" but that's a marketing ploy. Their own service is clogged full of assholes posting the most horrible stuff imaginable on Facebook, proudly displaying their ugly mug to the world.

  19. Not a naive fanboy · 1489 days ago

    if Facebook would be more strict with their policy, not such greedy darkroom visitors, there would be no pseudonyms there too as its part of the user agreement to not come up with fantasy names. They just somewhen started to ban users caues the mass of bots and idiots exceeded the worktime their staff has, thats when they started to grow faster than myspace actually.

    Google out of my view does the right thing.
    Yeah its about privacy, but thats why you have the circles to not let idiots in and the name is the best way to ensure that they aren't idiots as people no longer can stealth behind fake identities and are much more concerned about the blurp that leaves them, a thing thats a growing pita on Crapbook

    and lets be fair: The linking of nicknames to realnames is such a real problem ... naw come on as if google and facebook wouldn't have that relation already, they just don't expose it, the same as Valve has it for several million users on Steam or Apple on their platform, including their postal adress actually thanks to the payment system.
    Don't be so naive in 2011 to assume that you can go by with a pseudonym and not half the web knows who you are just cause you want to believe so.
    Its the same as if you thought that covering your eyes makes you invisible, and most learned at latest at the age of 4 thats that bullocks.

  20. Ric A Ohge · 1489 days ago

    I don't write under my real name. I don't object to people I'm trying to get to know, learning what it is, but I write under two "Nom De Plumes", as my real name, as Frank Zappa eloquently put it, " has no commercial potential..." I'm working on that famous part, but I object to Google requiring me to scrap a persona that has taken several years to build up. No one looks for "Me", they look for my persona.

    So much for using Google as a blog or article medium.

  21. Why don't they make two forms of Google+ linked in with something like Buzz(google). However, instead of just banning pseudonyms, why don't they create a private zone with your real name, (or make one up, like Harry Edward Johnson) ... SO, in the non-private zone you could you use your other name ( alias ) so-to-speak. This way the Privacy Experts at Google can be happy that they have your name on file, and the users have the option of using nicknames, as many as they want, as long as it's tied to a ""real identity"" such as in maybe electronically verified through phone directories or people search - just another way google can re-invent the wheel but with some added investagatory and sublimal personal information !!!

  22. "daffy duck" · 1473 days ago

    Why is this relevant to this discussion? It highlights a point being missed by FB and Google+; they actually have no right to tell you what your legal name is, because there is no such thing as a fixed legal name. You can change your name any time and you can have more than one name in use at a time. Most of us don't have such diversity and like the idea that we have a single name. You might also have some trouble with the banks and credit agencies if you keep changing things.


  23. "daffy duck" · 1473 days ago

    The policy these social sites should take is that your public name can be anything, but that they should find some way of making their members accountable. For instance, members should have to provide a "legal" name by which I mean the name that they are known, say, to financial institutions (this is kept private). Then just like PayPay they asks for your credit card details and credit 1c or 1p to your card to verify you. There are dozens of other ways that a members identity can be verified. All other users need to know is that you are "daffy duck" and your "real" identity has been verified. Then all they say is that as a validated member you have more freedom than a non validated member.

  24. EllisHarrisFairchild · 1315 days ago

    You know, people can always find a way to make real-sounding fake names, as people have always done for centuries before. Lewis Carroll is really a pen name, not a real name. The real person's name is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but it's the person's pen name that becomes famous. As I am writing these words, I am using the pseudonym, Ellis Harris Fairchild, a gender-neutral name that owes some credit to Emily Bronte for using the pseudonym "Ellis Bell". As you can see, you can still manage to create fake Internet profiles. If a person wants to create fake Internet profiles, then that person will do anything possible to avoid detection and get what he or she wants.

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About the author

Chester Wisniewski is a Senior Security Advisor at Sophos Canada. He provides advice and insight into the latest threats for security and IT professionals with the goal of providing clear guidance on complex topics. You can follow Chester on Twitter as @chetwisniewski, on as Chester, Chester Wisniewski on Google Plus or send him an email at