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Google borrows Facebook's privacy manual

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Google can count itself fortunate that a serious privacy storm it caused took place in the run up to Christmas - when world+dog was otherwise occupied. By altering the behaviour of one of its web-services, Google ran foul of its own Privacy guarantee - and continues to violate it.

Here's what happened.

In 2005 Google introduced a web-based RSS reader, in response to the popular and well-regarded Bloglines. Like Bloglines, Google's Reader service permitted users to share their feeds with a selected group of friends.

On December 14, this all changed. Google permitted anyone in your Google contact book to see your "shared" list. Passing acquaintances, employers and spouses were now able to read a user's RSS inbox.

Google cheerfully explained the change here, with the advice, "happy sharing!"

There was no option to opt-out of the "feature" - all Google Readers users were opted in by default.

"People on my contact list are not necessarily my "friends". I have business contacts, school contacts, family contacts, etc., and not only do I not really have any interest in seeing all of their feed information, I don't want them seeing mine either," responded one user. "This is a major privacy problem."

Other users pointed out that Google had violated its own Privacy Policy, which reads:

Send the link to your friends and family, and they'll be able to read what you've recommended. They can bookmark your page in their browsers for easy access, and they can even subscribe to it in Google Reader."

"This feels like a decision made by some 23 year old Google employee who thinks everyone wants to be on the latest social networking craze that all of his friends like," wrote another user.

Google responded that the data had always been "shared" - only previously, the URL was obfuscated. As you'd expect, this only made things worse.

So Google both changed the rules mid-game, and opted everyone into the change: two aspects of Facebook's notorious creepware advertising program Beacon. All your Facebook "friends" could now see what you'd bought through affiliate merchants, such as Amazon.com and eBay. This was beautifully encapsulated by GMSV's headline - "Honey, that jewelry and lingerie purchase you just made better be for me or you’re dead meat"

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What is frequently overlooked in such instances is the deliberation behind the decision. The poster quoted above suggested naivety and herd instinct were behind the "23 year old" Google employee's decision. But there's a creepy consistency to these serial privacy violations that is very evident to us - if not the developer who implements it. To see it, you have to look at the bigger picture, into the Hive Mind hooey of Web 2.0.

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What happens after such an incident is that the company in question is typically forced into an apology, regrets "causing offence" (but rarely the decision itself), and the issue is forgotten.

Then it tries again. And again.

Yet these are not accidental decisions - and they follow a disturbing pattern. For example, it's now customary for the media to refer to AOL's release of anonymized search logs last year as a "leak". But this is incorrect; you may recall this was no accident, it was a quite intentional - a gift to the Web.

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