The Trials and Tribulations of Google Buzz - The Controversy
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The bad news for Google began almost immediately, during its first week, when new Buzz users realized that their private e-mail addresses and Google contacts were being exposed by Google Buzz to other users. Not only that, but during the first week, Gmail users could be “followed” by anyone on their contact list without their permission, and in turn, they were “following” Buzz users without their consent.
According to numbers released by EPIC, 37 million people use Gmail, and all of them fall under the FTC’s jurisdiction. A spokesperson from EPIC told the Los Angeles Times that the group feels it’s the FTC’s responsibility to “require that Google give consumers the right to opt into the service instead of having to opt out of it, while also demanding Google give consumers greater control over their Buzz settings.”
Groups like EPIC have taken issue with Google Buzz as a whole, but for others it’s simply some of the service’s features that they’re uncomfortable with. The most severe privacy flaw pertains to a problem we’ve already touched upon: by default, Google Buzz publicly discloses a list of the Gmail contacts a user e-mails and chats with most frequently. The problem is that many users didn’t realize this feature existed, which is why many didn’t disable it -- and they continued to have sensitive information about themselves and their contacts revealed for all the world to see.
Many publications, including The New York Times, have blasted Google and its new service because of these major oversights, but the NYT columnist was also quick to point out that "Google is known for releasing new products before they are fully ready and then improving them over time." This is especially true of Google Buzz, as the company has already made two major changes in order to address privacy concerns, but many wonder if it’s enough.
The first change made was to make the option to disable public sharing of contact lists more apparent and prominent; users knew what they were signing up for when allowing this otherwise personal information to become public. The second major change pertained to the “auto-follow” feature on Buzz, which is now "auto-suggest.” Previously, when it was auto-follow, users automatically followed other Buzz users without those users consent and without the primary account holder’s permission. Now, users can choose who they follow, and this also extends to who is revealed on their list of public contacts, though this list is still made public by default.
According to tech insiders, such as those at the Business Insider, an online publication focusing on technology and business news, the changes Google has made to their new Buzz service are not sufficient. Business Insider writer Nicholas Carlson has even gone as far as to say that the changes are not only “inadequate,” but further illustrate Google’s refusal to “take its users' privacy concerns seriously.”
It should be pointed out that some of the contacts/information exposed to other Buzz users comes directly from a person’s Google profile, but there’s one major problem with that: users who’ve never created a Google profile are unable to make their list of contacts and other information private.
This particular problem resulted in a recent, high-profile court case against Google in which a woman claimed that information about her current workplace and her new partner was shared with her ex-husband as a result of Google Buzz. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but it goes beyond that: her ex-husband was found to be extremely abusive and violent.
Similar concerns have come up as a result of another Google feature that has yet to be disabled. Apparently by default, the mobile version of Google Buzz publishes a person’s exact location when they post any type of message to the service. This particular feature could be disastrous for many reasons, but especially if a user is in a situation similar to the woman discussed previously, i.e. has an abusive ex who can now track her down at a moment’s notice.
Not only that, but there are a thousand scenarios in which this could be dangerous for children. What if a young student updates Google Buzz using their mobile phone while walking home from school alone, unaware of the fact that complete strangers can be “following” them on the service? These are the types of concerns many believe Google isn’t taking into account or taking seriously enough.
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