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Working Around Google’s March 1st Privacy Changes

Google’s announced intention to track the activities of users across almost all of its holdings will take effect on March 1, 2012!  Users of YouTube, Gmail, and Google Search will not have the option of opting out. It will apply to all of its services with the exception of Google Wallet, Google Books, and the Chrome web browser.

Google promises added benefits to its users and a simplification of its privacy policy. Privacy advocates, on the other hand, believe the changes not only are an invasion of privacy but will invite further intrusion by the federal government.

Google has been quietly collecting most of this information for quite a while. But now, for the first time, it is combining data from across its varied sites to create a unified portrait of its users. The changes take place on March 1st and users will not be able to decline the tracking.

Google says the changes will enable it to better tailor its ads to individual users’ tastes. It also argues the privacy changes will be of great benefit to users of its sites. Google’s director of privacy for product and engineering, Alma Whitten, wrote in a blog post, “If you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.”

Industry insiders believe Google is making the move to stave off stiff completion from Apple and Facebook. Both giants have been very successful at building a consolidated approach to gathering information in order to capture people’s attention. Up till now, Google has had a fairly decentralized approach to information gathering.

Consumer advocates, however, paint a far different picture of Google’s changes. Common Sense Media chief executive, James Steyer noted, “Google’s new privacy announcement is frustrating and a little frightening. Even if the company believes that tracking users across all platforms improves their services, consumers should still have the option to opt out — especially the kids and teens who are avid users of YouTube, Gmail and Google Search.”

What users may not realize is that tracking runs much deeper than when using one’s personal computer. Google can gather information about users when they activate an Android mobile phone, enter search terms, or sign into their accounts online. Unless users disable cookies on their computer, Google can also see which Web sites users visit or use its maps program to estimate their location.

A number of lawmakers and consumer advocates remain skeptical of Google’s intentions. “There is no way anyone expected this,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “There is no way a user can comprehend the implication of Google collecting across platforms for information about your health, political opinions and financial concerns.” The co-chair of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) agrees: “It is imperative that users will be able to decide whether they want their information shared across the spectrum of Google’s offerings.”

While there will be no way to opt-out of the March 1st changes, there is a way to protect your information.

How to remove all items from your Web History and stop your Web History from being recorded in the future:

Step 1: Sign into your Google Account

Step 2: Go to https://google.com/history

Step 3: Click “remove all web history”

Step 4: Click “OK”

IMPORTANT: Removing your Web History also pauses it. Web History will remain off until you enable it again. Disabling Web History in your Google account will not prevent Google from gathering and storing this information and using it for internal purposes. It also does not change the fact that any information gathered and stored by Google could be sought by law enforcement.

With Web History enabled, Google will keep these records indefinitely; with it disabled, they will be partially anonymized after 18 months, and certain kinds of uses, including sending you customized search results, will be prevented. If you want to do more to reduce the records Google keeps, the advice in EFF’s Six Tips to Protect Your Search Privacy white paper remains relevant.

If you have several Google accounts, you will need to do this for each of them.

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