Google+: And You Thought Facebook Is a Privacy Nightmare

Google is opening Google+ to more users as private invites remain available to existing users. There have been hiccups, and the population remains very limited, but Google is already facing privacy concerns that can only grow as more users enter the stream.

The launch of Google+ has been nothing short of stunning, as the limited user base initiated a monumental grassroots marketing campaign for the network that is apparently Google’s strongest weapon to fight Facebook and Twitter for advertising revenue. If you have been among a small group of first-week Google+ users, you could have thought that scarce invites are about as valuable as the first spot in the line for the next iPhone.

Google opened the doors to its network a bit more last week and apparently doubled the population of its network. Despite hiccups that included flooded Google hard drives and caused a wave of Plus spam on the network, it seems that the service is scaling fast, as invites remain largely available to be sent out by users. A friend exporter has been blocked by Facebook, but there is now a tool that enables users to import the Facebook stream to Google+, and Facebook status messages can be posted directly from within Google+. To view, comment, or reply to posts, users will have to switch to Facebook, however.

What particularly surprised us here at ConceivablyTech is the virtually nonexistent privacy on Google+. If you have complained about a lack of privacy on Facebook before, you surely won’t like Google+, and if you freely voice your opinion that could get you in legal trouble, you may want to think twice about using Google+. The company’s general terms of service also apply to this new service, which would include these paragraphs:

By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services.

You agree that this license includes a right for Google to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals with whom Google has relationships for the provision of syndicated services, and to use such Content in connection with the provision of those services.

You understand that Google, in performing the required technical steps to provide the Services to our users, may (a) transmit or distribute your Content over various public networks and in various media; and (b) make such changes to your Content as are necessary to conform and adapt that Content to the technical requirements of connecting networks, devices, services or media. You agree that this license shall permit Google to take these actions.

The use of Google+ requires users to have a Google profile, which is searchable (in default configuration) by anyone and will now link to the Google+ page of a user, if it exists. Google’s Google+ privacy policy states that the service “may display your Google Profile identity to people who have your email address or other identifying information,” which is only half the truth, as some information in the profile is always shown to anyone and there is no way to block it (the content can be blocked from indexing in Google’s search engine, but the link will always reveal that content).

At this time, you can search for people on Google+ without having access to the network. The search result will reveal their profile, including the profile picture, and there is no way to block that information to outsiders at this time, unless you remove that picture. Google+ goes a step further, of course:

Posts and other content shared by or with you – such as photos of you – may be visible on your profile to those with whom that content has been shared. You can use the profile editor to see how your profile appears to particular individuals.

The Profile Editor as well as a few privacy settings provide limited tools to affect the display of your page and the way it appears to others, but a quick stroll around people networks reveals that very few content streams are blocked at this time to anyone. Photo albums, email addresses, and names are wide open simply because posted information is shared with the last defined set of people whom you shared some information with. If you chose to share a post with anyone, then the following posts will also be shared with anyone (unless you remember to change this setting). Once posted, this setting cannot be shared anymore, and the only way to get rid of the post and its public exposure is to delete it. By that time, however, it may already have been indexed and at least cached by Google’s search engine. In following posts, you will actively have to change the setting — which requires only one click, but we all know how negligent we can be when posting content to a social-network stream. It is in our nature that our fingers are occasionally faster than our brain.

The privacy settings should be your first stop after signing up for Google+, as they enable you to lock down the visibility of posted content, such as the visibility of your network, but there are countless loopholes that create a wonderland for privacy intrusions, possibly ID theft and especially spammers. We found it somewhat funny that Google would suggest that Google+ users should use alternative names on their network to avoid spam. In all seriousness, that can only be a joke: Why would you use an alternative name or even a nickname? Isn’t the purpose of these networks that our friends, colleagues, and family members can find us?

Combined with Google’s terms of use, careless conduct — such as posting messages on the network that you really should not be posting — could be a recipe for a privacy nightmare. We hear that lawyers are already preparing legal action. In this case, it may even be deserved, as the privacy of users is abused in an incredibly neglectful manner. If Facebook has been sued and is being sued on a continuous basis, Google won’t be able to escape the creativity of U.S. lawyers, either. Google+ sounds like an invitation to a monumental lawsuit against Google. The addressable user base is definitely there: There are estimates that Google+ may already be housing about 4.7 million users (this link goes to an open Google+ post).

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