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What you need to know about Google's privacy changes

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Starting Thursday, Google is implementing both a new privacy policy and terms of service.

There’s two things, in particular, to note, and they have a clear common thread: Google wants to smooth the lines between its many services.

The first is unabashedly positive. Google’s compacted its 60 different privacy policies into a single document that holds true for each of its sites, including YouTube, Blogger, Google+, and Picasa.

The new policy itself is relatively uncomplicated, a single document that’s a little over 2,200 words long.

The second is a broader, more sweeping change that anyone who uses Google services should be aware of: Google wants to integrate all your personal information from each of these sites to build a more comprehensive profile of you.

In the most charitable sense, this means a smoother, more helpful and more convenient Internet experience.

Taken cynically, this is Google creating an ever increasingly complex profile of you so it can continually hone its ads. Remember that Google’s business model is based on its phenomenally effective targeted advertising.

To illustrate, look at a cartoon Google uses to describe the new policy. More integration, it says, “may even mean we'll be able to tell you when you'll be late for a meeting, based on your location, your calendar and local traffic conditions.”

Whether that’s maddeningly creepy or incredibly convenient depends on your perspective.

Remember, Google’s information about you is entirely gleaned from your use of its sites. You give it some of this information passively, like your operating system whenever you use its search engine. You give some of it actively, such as when you use your real name to register for Gmail, or upload your photo to your Google Profile.

Everything you give Google becomes data Google can use to better identify you, though you can somewhat control how the company uses that information.

Curious what your Google Account says about you? Go ahead and sign in to your dashboard. It may be unnerving to see stats on your use of Google chat, Picasa, or the Android Market laid bare, but keep in mind that this is not a new development. Google’s been keeping all this information for years.

Note, too, that the company makes it easy to partially opt out of personalized ads. You can’t ever avoid seeing ads relevant to your searches, but you can, quite easily, choose to not see ads personalized for you from what Google has gleaned from your use of its sites.

Simply opt out. Google notes that those who choose to keep personalized ads see 10% fewer of them, but click on them 37% more frequently.

Perhaps the most intimate means for Google to know you is your search history. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, if Google’s search algorithm is honed in part by your past searches. And
it’s company policy to not show you targeted ads based on what it deems “sensitive personal information”—meaning race, sexuality, politics, religion and health.

Still, it can be unnerving to know that Google’s built up a file on you that includes everything you’ve asked it. You can opt out of Google using your Web history in building its profile of you by going here. Note, however, that this will not keep Google from keeping this information internally. It will be made anonymous after 18 months.

Photo by arriba