Five ways Google's unified privacy policy affects you

Google implemented a new privacy policy on March 1. Here's the "So what?" and what the search giant's changes mean for you.

YouTube is one of 60 services that will fall under Google's unified privacy policy. Screenshot by Sharon Vaknin/CNET

Today, Google's unified privacy policy goes live, allowing the search giant to combine and manipulate data from all its 60 free services, something it could not do under its previous policies.

Coverage of the policy change has been abundant during the last few weeks leading up to it, though Google has made no secret of its intentions--pop-ups alerting users to the transition can be seen on the home pages of all its services.

But despite the warnings, you might still be wondering how, exactly, the change will affect you. Is it really as scary as media are warning? Here's what you need to know:

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1. Google isn't collecting more information, just using it differently.
The big misconception here is that Google will suddenly gain access to a host of information it didn't have before. That's incorrect. The reality is that the search giant has always collected your usage data for all of its services like Google+, Gmail, YouTube, and so on. And they've been using some of that data to personalize your experience already.

What changes now is that data collected from your activity on YouTube and Google Search can be used to further personalize your experience in all of Google's products.

The company is touting it as a positive change that will give you a better overall Google experience and make its privacy policy easier to understand.

For example, if you search for information about dog training, the suggested videos you see the next time you visit YouTube may be about cute puppies. Previously, Google could not manipulate data in this manner.

2. You'll be tracked. No matter what.
Building up to today, we and many other tech experts have suggested you clear your Google Web History ( here's how ). It's clear now that although this is a good move (you should do it), it won't stop Google from collecting your data. By clearing and stopping the official tracking of your Web activity, you only prevent Google associating that collected data with your Google account.

But let's be clear: this does not stop Google from tracking your Web activity. Meaning, your searches will still be followed and stored on Google's servers for "internal use," even if you're not signed in. The information could still be used to build that profile about you and, ultimately, allow Google to sell ads specifically tailored to you.

3. Is it really a big deal? Yes and no.
While privacy experts are concerned, others exclaim, "So what?" Both reactions are valid.

On the one hand, this isn't a big deal--again, Google is collecting the same information it always has, but now it's being used to improve the users' experience. One of the more awesome examples is that, based your location and traffic in your area, Google could warn you that you'll be late to the appointment you logged in Google Calendar. Pretty neat.

And, so what if the data will be used for advertisements? That's nothing new. The only difference is that the advertisements will be truer to your interests. There's no such thing as a free lunch, people. Google has to make money from advertisements, so they might as well be accurate.

Enough with playing devil's advocate.

On the other hand, privacy experts and lawmakers are up in arms about the policy. As Wall Street Journal Senior Technology Reporter Julia Angwin explains, the United States currently has very few laws governing the collection, use, and distribution of user data.

To combat privacy concerns like these, the Obama administration has proposed a consumer "privacy bill of rights" that would protect people by allowing them to decide what information is collected about them, and how it is used. However, no current laws will get in the way of Google's unified privacy policy.

4. There are some workarounds.
I laughed out loud when a friend suggested that people "just stop using Google services." Yeah, right. We all depend on the Goog for everything, from driving directions to figuring out why my knee has been giving me issues. And, where would I get my laughs? I wouldn't last very long without seeing Marcel The Shell With Shoes On.

Forget about going cold turkey. Instead, follow these tips to minimize how much data Google collects about you:

  • Perform Google searches without signing in.
  • Use these tools to avoid leaving any footprints when you use Google services.
  • "Confuse" Google by creating multiple accounts and using them for different activities. (If you are able to do this without going insane, high five.)
  • Add "do not track" to your browsers.

Check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation's complete guide to protecting your privacy. But if all else fails, you can always back up your Google data, and close your account ( here's how ).

5. Google Books, Chrome, and Wallet will maintain additional policies. The privacy policies of 60 of Google's services were collapsed into one today, but Wallet, Books, and Chrome will maintain independent policies while still adhering to Google's unified privacy policy.

Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify how its data is used for advertisements, as well as that Google is changing the way it uses YouTube and Web history data, and not data from all of its services.

 

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