How Google's privacy policy changes will affect Android

Google's simplifying and unifying how it handles your data. Android is ground zero for all the changes.

Google maintains over 70 privacy policies for their different services, but it wants just one page of legalese to rule them all. So in “just over a month,” Google will implement a universal privacy policy for all its services. What Google is doing with your information, and why it’s really doing so, are up for debate, and Google’s Android smartphone system is at the core of that debate.

The way Google pitches their one-for-all policy, and as shown in their video explainer, anyone using any combination of Google’s services will have a single document, written in plain English, that will tell them how Google can use the information they offer up. In Google’s worldview, that means Google keeps that information from going anywhere outside their servers (unless you want to share it), and that Google will use that information to make their services work more efficiently for you. The prime examples shown in the video are recognizing irregular words you’ve typed before (”Yowza!”), showing better advertising, and, in the grand finale, knowing that you’re going to be late to a meeting you scheduled on Google Calendar, because your Android phone knows where you are, Maps knows how bad traffic is around you, and your use of Gmail or another service shows that you’re not on your way there yet.

Critics are early and eager in their suggestions that Google wants a universal all-app privacy policy for other purposes. Gizmodo suggests this is the end of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto. The Washington Post takes a broadly negative tack on the policy, hitting the point multiple times that people signing into a single Google service, like Gmail, generally won’t anticipate that their use of Gmail affects the things they see on YouTube. There are, mind you, already a host of web sites using Google’s advertising platform that “track” you from site to site, so that you see ads for Gillette razors on one blog after searching YouTube for “straight razor shaving,” but that’s besides the point. The backlash against Google’s privacy policy change is easy to find on the web; the backlash against the backlash has already begun.

If you use an Android phone, you might assume you’re at ground zero for Google’s new universal data policies, and you’d be mostly right. Here, then, is a hit list of everything Android and mobile-related that Google says you should be aware of, taken from the preview version of their universal privacy policy (dated to be effective March 1, 2012).

  • “Device information.” Google says it may collect your hardware model, operating system version, unique device identifiers, and mobile network information, including phone number, and associate those identifiers with your Google Account.

  • “Log information.” Among the things Google states it may save in its server logs are your phone number, the number you’re calling, forwarding numbers, times and dates of calls, and SMS routing information. These seem to relate primarily to Google Voice and the free calling features in Gmail and Google+. Google states they’re saved in server logs, but doesn’t clarify who might have access to those logs.

  • “Location information.” Pretty standard knowledge at this point: Google will use your device’s GPS, Wi-Fi signals nearby, and cell tower triangulation to figure out where you are and serve up local-focused search results and ads.

  • Google Wallet has its own privacy rider, even in the simplified, universal Google policy.

There are lots of details to find the devil in, if you’re looking for him. The gist I take away from reading over Google’s new policy is that your identity, your true name and personality as you’ve used it across Google’s services, is more important to Google than ever before. Google+ isn’t just a social network where you can post cat pictures, catch up with friends, and perhaps see a few ads that help pay the server bills. Google+, and your associated Google Profile, is, to paraphrase Jeffery “The Dude” Lebowski, the rug that really ties the room together.

That profile, that account, is now the main way that Google decides which search results and ads show up in every service they offer results and ads. You can opt out of personalized ads, but Google will still log all the services on your Android phone as being used by one particular user, not a barrel full of semi-anonymous cookies.

How you see that change depends on what you think Google’s intentions are. Google can clarify what it does with your data, but it’s still up to you on the why part.

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