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Google's new privacy policy pulls together their existing policies into one place. There's nothing really new; they already have a lot of data on you.

If I use an email account based on a pseudonym on Google Groups, will Google match that with my real name and compromise my secrecy? If so, would creating a new pseudonym fool Google? Or is the bottom line of their privacy policy such that anyone using any account via a particular IP address runs the risk of being identified?

I've received several questions about Google's privacy policy "change" of a few weeks ago.

I'll certainly admit that I've not read it in excruciating detail, but it's my understanding that little has changed significantly in Google's privacy policies. The new policy simply brings all of the separate policies that they had set up for all of their separate services before under one umbrella.

Your concern about your anonymity actually transcends these policies, whether they change or not.

It's my belief that there are really two questions at play here.

Can Google tell who you really are?

My sense is yes.

Google is dealing with so much information on the web and with so many different people in so many different ways that I can't see how they can't have collected something, somehow, that ties your pseudonym to something else that might identify the real you.

The real question is do they care?

My sense is not just no, but hell no! Smile

Again, they deal with so many different people every day - millions, if not over a billion - that caring about the details of any one specific person is a complete waste of time from their perspective.

"... what we post publicly says a tremendous amount about us, whether we include our name or not."

So I would be shocked if there was not some kind of data collected that could tie your pseudonym to your real identity. Creating a new pseudonym - if it's a solution at all - would only be a temporary one; I'm convinced that that same data aggregation would occur that would eventually tie that to you as well.

And to be clear, I don't think Google is trying to make this connection. Not at all. In my opinion, it's simply a side-effect of the massive amounts of information that they deal with every day and the fact that some of it is very likely to connect the dots.

The only time that I see this as an issue is if the legal system gets involved. Google's records can be subpoenaed and the data made available to the authorities assuming that there's a legal case to be made that it should be. In such a case, the ability to connect the dots between a pseudonym and a real person will depend on the forensic abilities of the individuals analyzing the data.

In my mind, there's a second question that is MUCH more important.

Can anyone tell who you really are?

The vast majority of the data covered by Google's privacy policy is data collected and kept private to Google or used only for business purposes as outlined by that policy. As I said, you'll typically need a court order to actually gain access to the details that they collect.

More interesting to me (and completely Google-independent) is how well you've avoided publicly exposing data that could potentially still be used to tie your pseudonym to the real you.

Information posted in email, in public forums (like Usenet and others), comments on blogs or articles published publicly all have the potential of accidentally exposing information about you. Everything from writing styles to common typos to IP addresses that may or may not be included in the publicly presented information could be used to identify the real you.

Perhaps not explicitly or directly, but in aggregate, what we post publicly says a tremendous amount about us, whether we include our name or not.

If there's suspicion that a motivated person could spend time performing some kind of forensic analysis using publicly posted data that might be able to tie a pseudonym to a real person. It's probably not easy and it probably would be time consuming, but I would be concerned that unless extreme care were consistently taken, it might well be possible.

As just one surprising example, some years ago, AOL allowed anonymized search terms to be used for university research. There was no indication who was searching for what, other than specific users were assigned random and completely anonymous ID numbers. Several real people were identified only by the searches that they performed and the terms that they used, and nothing else.

So ultimately, my concern is not with Google and its privacy policies at all, unless you expect the authorities to be looking for you. (And to be clear, I'm not judging; I know that there are many situations where that's a valid concern.)

My concern is simply more traditional data leakage made in public.

You may already be telling the world more than you realize.

References

Google Privacy Policy (current privacy policy, but includes a link to, and will be updated with the referenced "new" policy on March 1, 2012.)

How to Remove Your Google Search History Before Google's New Privacy Policy Takes Effect via the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

AOL's disturbing glimpse into users' lives c|net, August 7, 2006

Article C5087 - February 24, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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9 Comments
Icemanx
February 25, 2012 6:39 PM

Look if you want to tell them how many times a day you go to the toilet then thats YOUR business

If you want t6o say NOTHING or give no details then thats your BUSINESS

I dont care how much info anyone wants its what I want them to know
and if I say no your not getting it then its up to me to tell them

I will give what I want to share if no one likes it then they can go suck duck eggs....

have a nice day!

Hira
February 28, 2012 8:43 AM

We all have choices. Yes, Google offers lots of free programs which are used by the millions. I do not think Google is planning to make 'little' money by selling some personal data ! If one is scared of using Google, do not use it. It is like saying pay cash, instead of using check or credit card. This article gives a good synopsis of new Google policy.

http://askbobrankin.com/is_googles_privacy_policy_evil.html?awt_l=IEK7N&awt_m=IfqgtMkrX8P6SL

Best, Hira

John
February 28, 2012 9:08 AM

It DOES matter that Google can make the connection to you, even through a pseudonym. I found myself banned from placing AdWords due to an error in my landing page - the second error in 3 years. The first time they cancelled the ban when I corrected it and appealed, but there is apparently NO APPEAL after a second error. Google made it clear that the ban applies to any future account I might ever have with them EVEN UNDER ANY PSEUDONYM. They can make the connection through my method of payment, IP address, etc., etc.

As an aside, I switched to Microsoft Adcenter and found that although their reach is about 1/2 Google Adword's, the cost is also about 1/2 so the result per dollar is about the same.

Andy
February 28, 2012 9:09 AM

My family are currently going through these motions, and whilst you do make some valid points in Google's defence Leo, I don't think we'll be going back to Google in a hurry!

I don't think it's the fact that a real person could potentially convict you of a crime or anything so much, rather the fact Google and other big search engines (Google being the worst for it) actually use your information, without explicit consent, to customize things. This can make you feel uncomfortable for various reasons etc. and I actually have hard evidence to support the fact that Google shares your data.

Earlier this month, we got a new laptop in the house and made the decision to completely avoid Google on it. We found a search called Startpage that we used instead. Startpage claims that it still uses Google to search the internet but makes everything anonymous, and it seems that is correct: on all of our other computers we found that on most sites the advertisements are based on our previous searches. However, on the new laptop on which no one had searched using Google the adverts have been completely random and have not been relevant to us whatsoever.

So if you're concerned about privacy, and/or dislike the fact that everything you search for definitely is recorded, I'd recommend https://startpage.com. Its a bit slower than the likes of Google but with valid reason - it is totally anonymous and searches using a secure connection to ensure that you are not the victim of man in the middle attacks etc...

John (UK)
February 28, 2012 9:50 AM

This new policy has raised grave concerns here in the EU, especially as it appears to violate the European Data Protection Directive.This BBC news item, (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17192234), has some interesting links.

James
February 28, 2012 5:18 PM

It always amazes me that people are concerned about government or others having a "big brother" computer, yet they have no problems sending email from their gmail account, searching using Google, using GoogleMaps, share personal information using Google+, and so on, and so on, and so on.

K.Vee.Shanker.
February 29, 2012 1:08 AM

I'm really surprised that people want free lunches always. Google or anyone for that matter tracks my searches in return for a free software/service, I believe it is fair. Even if they sell my mail id, by that count, I deem it fair. For the simple reason, I've accepted their T&C and used their free services. If I don't accept that standard practice, I should have refused their offer first.

K.Vee.Shanker.
February 29, 2012 1:17 AM

As an after thought, I add that what I mean fair practice is the usage of my search preferences/data for legally and morally accepted business and not for maleficent intentions.

Steve
March 16, 2012 6:34 PM

Secrecy, SMECRECY. What I hate about Google is:

Their antisocial socialness.

i.e. Here's you stuff, don't bother us.

They are simply incompetant as internet manager and engineers. Customer service didn't go to Bangalore, it went to peers as in Answers or whatever Google groups help became.

They don't listen to user complaints, simply running them over. They hang on tooth and nail even in the face of a real problem.

Adwords and porn are two good examples of this, and intertwined.

In the usenet group I interfaced through Google Groups, which often called trannies for transformers we'd often see correspnding links for adult websites (also for automobile transmissions). I once saw a niece's video production company there and I don't know why. After 2001 the search engines all seemed to adopt new search browsers (before 9/11) and relevant searches became a ridiculous quest. It's improved some but it's still a pain.

The only consistant search on Google seems to be for adult queries. Maybe the first 2-3 pages would seem to be the same for many results, as if somebody paid for it or something.

Why I can find a porn topic easily and not antique radio information is absurd. Why clips that are not available in my region on You Tube are simply not compiled (on Google OR You Tube) and we aren't shown alternate choices on YT but a page of clips based on what we have watchs and sponsored features (half of it actually IS what I watched or someone else's identical uploads)...

i don't need to continue as I've described what I don't like about Google well without detailing a bunch of failed projects.

They don't make a lick of sense to me and haven't for over a decade.

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