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Google wants ability to 'combine' your user data

A forthcoming change to Google's privacy policy gives it the right to use information across multiple services to provide enhanced services and ads. Previously, that was only implicit.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
3 min read

Google is planning to rewrite its privacy policy to grant it explicit rights to "combine personal information" across multiple products and services, the company said today. Previously, it had only implicit rights to do so.

Beginning March 1, the activities and data of a Google user who is signed in will be used to provide a "simpler, more intuitive" experience for users across all the Google services, according to a post on the Official Google blog.

For instance, Google searches may take into consideration context of searches based on the user information and activities, such as knowing that an import car buff would want "Jaguar" the car rather than the big cat of the same name, a video in the post explains. And auto-correct may suggest spellings when a user is typing in Google Docs or Gmail based on prior content they have created.

"It may even be able to tell you when you'll be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and local weather conditions," the video says. "All of which means we're not just keeping your private stuff private. We're making it more useful to you in your daily life too."

The changes will roll out along with modifications to the company's privacy policies and terms of service. Google's 60 privacy policies for its different services are being rolled into one uber privacy policy that the company said is designed to be simpler and easier to understand. The terms of service are also being rewritten and consolidated.

"The main change is for users with Google Accounts. Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you're signed in, we may combine information you've provided from one service with information from other services," Alma Whitten, director of privacy, product and engineering, writes in the blog post. "In short, we'll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience."

It's unclear exactly what Google can do with user data that it couldn't do before. Google already can do some of this cross-pollination. "Today we can also do things like make it easy for you to read a memo from Google Docs right in your Gmail, or add someone from your Gmail contacts to a meeting in Google Calendar," the post says.

Not every product is included in the main privacy product. For instance, Google Books, Wallet, and Chrome will retain their own policies, according to this FAQ.

"In some cases, such as for financial services like Google Wallet, a product may be regulated by industry-specific privacy laws and require detailed descriptions of our practices," the FAQ says. "In others, like Chrome, we simply wanted to explain our privacy practices specific to those products in more detail. In these cases we chose to keep product-specific notices rather than clutter up the main Privacy Policy."

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), expressed concern that the changes would lead to further erosion of user privacy.

"These privacy policy consolidations have always led to a lowering of overall privacy standards," he said in an e-mail to CNET. "That was the exact experience with the Gmail privacy policy when Google Buzz was introduced."

EPIC has been critical of previous Google announcements, sending letters to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission about Google Buzz and Google Search Plus. Google and the FTC settled the Buzz complaint last year with an agreement that requires Google to establish a comprehensive privacy program, to undergo independent audits of its privacy practices for 20 years, and to make new features opt-in if they provide additional sharing of certain types of private information.

Updated 3:30 p.m. PT with FAQ information on three services that will have their own privacy policies.