Google has had issues with privacy, and has been challenged by privacy advocates for as long as it has existed. The battle scars it has acquired from previous privacy battles, however, may not have prepared Google for the whole new realm of privacy concerns it invited when it jumped into social networking with Buzz.
Historically, Google privacy issues revolve around Google knowing too much, and whether or not it has adequate controls in place to protect that information from unauthorized access. Whether it’s Web sites, photos, videos, or any other online content, the goal of Google is to crawl and index every last byte of available data and make it available for you to search in a matter of milliseconds.
Google has faced challenges from an array of privacy advocates on multiple continents. Google CEO Eric Schmidt didn’t help assuage privacy concerns when he said in a CNBC interview “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines –including Google –do retain this information for some time and it’s important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities.”
The general fear is simply that Google knows too much. It knows what sites you visit and what information you look for. It has pictures of your house including what cars are in the driveway and whether or not you happened to be passing by a window in your underwear that day. Indexed information may lead to inadvertent disclosure or compromise of sensitive information, and people are also concerned about how well Google protects the data it is entrusted with.
With Buzz, Google has crossed the line from indexing information to providing a social networking platform. The privacy concerns for social networking are entirely different than the privacy concerns for data indexing and Web search. Rather than being concerned with how much Google knows, social networking privacy concerns revolve around how much information is shared with others.
From a business perspective, Google Buzz can be a sort of Pandora’s Box. In its original form, Buzz automatically added contacts to Buzz, possibly exposing business partnerships, or relationships that the company would rather not be known publicly.
A Buzz thread feels like e-mail or instant messaging because it is accessed through the Gmail interface, and the communications are threaded. But, the Buzz messages are actually more like Twitter ‘tweets’ without the 140-character limitation. The primary difference being the public nature of tweets versus the more closed communications of instant messaging or e-mail.
When you post a message to Buzz, it is possible that it can be viewed publicly, and the viral nature of the social network can quickly expose your message to friends of friends of friends as others in your network comment. Google has already made multiple updates to Buzz to address privacy concerns, and it is possible to set Buzz messages as private rather than public, but there is still ample room for error as users get used to the fact that Buzz is like Twitter more than e-mail.
When the enterprise version of Google Buzz is introduced, it will hopefully include additional controls to enable IT administrators to control the social interaction and restrict visibility of Buzz messages. There is tremendous potential for how Buzz can benefit businesses, but not if it breaches privacy or compromises information in the process.
Google is no stranger to privacy issues, but it is a stranger to social networking privacy issues and there are some growing pains to get through.
Tony Bradley is co-author of Unified Communications for Dummies . He tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW , and can be contacted at his Facebook page .