How to navigate Google's privacy options

Filed Under: Featured, Google, Privacy, Social networks

Privacy Policy courtesy of ShutterStock.comWhen Google announced it was revising its privacy policies last week, it caused quite an uproar in many technical circles (not just Google+ circles either).

In this post I will try to provide a summary of the changes, but more importantly what your options are to maintain your privacy while utilizing Google services.

Google's new policy takes effect on March 1st, 2012. If you are totally unhappy with the direction they are going with privacy, you still have one month to grab all of your data and choose a new search engine/email/cloud/social network.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and my views are simply my interpretation of information posted publicly by Google.

So what actually changed? To be fair not a whole lot. Google has consolidated more than 60 individual privacy policies into one, with the exception of a few services (Wallet, Chrome/Chrome OS and Books).

Google logoMost of the controversy surrounds Google's statements regarding their intention to share more information between Google services like search, Google+ and Gmail.

This was already allowed under the current privacy policy, Google is just expressing its intent to begin exercising that policy.

This data sharing will occur if you are currently logged into a Google account like Gmail, Google+, Youtube or any other Google services.

What options do you have for limiting the amount of information Google gathers and how they use it?

  • Advertising: Personally identifiable information (PII) will not be shared with Google ad networks unless you opt-in. Non-PII is shared between Google services and its ad networks by default. You can opt-out of ad personalization using Google Ads preferences page. Don't forget there are two sections "Ads on Search and Gmail" and "Ads on the Web".

    There are also ad cookie plugins that will persistently block ad personalization available for Chrome and Firefox (beta).

  • Streetview: Google will honor requests to blur pictures of you, your family, your car or your home. Simply find the offending image on Google Streetview and click "Report a problem".

  • Web History: Google keeps track of your search terms and items you have clicked on when using Google services. You can control what information they keep, or opt-out altogether using its Web History Controls.

  • Google Chat: Google keeps records of your conversations with others when using Google Chat by default. If you want to prevent them from logging your chat sessions you can go "Off the record" to disable the logging.

  • Google Analytics: Many websites use Google Analytics to track usage information, page views, and anonymous browser statistics. Google have released a plugin (beta) for IE, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera that will opt you out of data collection on these web pages.

  • Search Personalization: Google customizes search results based upon what you click and search for. This is done whether you are signed into a Google account or not unless you have opted out.

Unfortunately, much like Facebook, Google has decided that customization is so darned convenient that you must opt-out of these features if you don't like them.

The good news is that nearly all the information you share with Google is under your control and often has flexible options available on how that data is shared.

Incognito modeAnother technique I have used to limit Google's ability to tie together my search results with my use of Gmail, Google+ and YouTube is to open an Incognito window (Chrome), Private Browsing (Firefox) or InPrivate Browsing (IE) when using Google services that require me to sign in.

This way I can browse in my normal browser window, not signed in, with my opt-out cookie for personalization and still access other Google services without the two browsers cross-pollinating.

If you have a Google account you can view a complete list of data Google is storing on you on the Google Dashboard page.

Shutterstock image of Dont PanicGoogle has also provided page called "Good to know" linking to their management tools, policies and other information regarding your information and how it is used.

In summary, no reason to panic. Google hasn't changed much related to its policy, but will start using more of your data than before. If you don't want to quit Google you can exercise some of the above options to retain control of how your information is used.

Image credit: Privacy Policy and Don't Panic images from Shutterstock.

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8 Responses to How to navigate Google's privacy options

  1. Robert Witham · 1344 days ago

    Excellent review and clarification. I saw the notice the other day but, honestly, I just didn't feel like wading though it all at the time. Now I don't have to!

  2. judi Hamilton · 1344 days ago

    Brilliant review, helped me to better understand what this Google business is all about. Keep up the great work Sophos.

  3. Michael · 1344 days ago

    I don't suppose Google's maintaining a database of people who opt out/complain/make removal requests?

  4. Mike Perry · 1344 days ago

    I don't have any account with Google but do use their search engine, maps and Google Earth. So I have set all the accessible and relevant options so they do not interfere with my searches, etc. Why would I want a previous search to affect a later one about something totally unrelated? Why would I want to see what they term 'targeted ads' when I never read them anyway? They just waste my screen space and internet bandwidth for absolutely no benefit whatever. Why woukld they want to invade my privacy anyway?? Is it so they make more money - or am I being cynical?

  5. So to avoid being spied on, they think I should install multiple plugins, try to find any pictures of me on streetview, opt out of search stuff and avoid chatting to anyone on google talk from my instant messenger?

    Seems pretty evil to me.

  6. myron · 1343 days ago

    Great article!
    Excellent review and clarification .Google has consolidated more than 60 individual privacy policies into one, with the exception of a few services (Wallet, Chrome/Chrome OS and Books).

  7. Rick · 1342 days ago

    I've noticed that the "Report Problem" on the Google Streetviw is greyed out/unaccessible. Is there another way to report images to Google as far as blurring out your pictures on Streetview?

  8. kotecek · 1342 days ago

    Great article ? really ?
    - Web History "(...)You can control what information they keep, or opt-out altogether using its" - your data won't be removed from their tape backups
    - Private Browsing (Firefox) & others - your browser will delete all data after you close it but G will be able to track you. Even when you open second browser they will have your ip address/ server logs.
    Lets say you are able to get rid of cookies - apparently you forget about Anonymous identifier - is a random string of characters that is used for the same purposes as a cookie on platforms, including certain mobile devices, where cookie technology is not available.
    What about - Device information ?? to difficult to copy info ?
    "We may collect device-specific information (such as your hardware model, operating system version, unique device identifiers, and mobile network information including phone number). (...)" - each device has its own unique number U SHOULD KNOW IT.
    There is plenty other things but i am too lazy to write and I don't get money.
    Saying - "In summary, no reason to panic (...)" it is a big Lie

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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