Google apologizes, modifies Buzz to protect user privacy

Google apologized on Saturday, saying it has made several changes to its new social-networking application Buzz to allay privacy concerns.

Google’s Buzz, which debuted last week, is closely entwined with its Gmail service.

The company leveraged a person’s address book contacts to create an immediate social network for Buzz, which is designed to let people post and share content in a fashion similar toFacebook or Twitter.

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Buzz automatically followed some of a person’s contacts, which “led people to think that Buzz had automatically displayed the people they were following to the world before they created a profile,” wrote Todd Jackson, a Google product manager.

The feature drew fire since it was viewed as making it easier to determine who a person contacts frequently using Gmail.

“The underlying issue is that your e-mail and chat contacts are not necessarily people you want to advertise as friends via a public social network,” wrote Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, on Friday.

At that time, Google did offer an option to hide users’ followers and those they’re following, but people had to opt out, and they may not have realized how they were publicly linked to other users.

Buzz’s default mode has now been modified to merely suggest contacts who would be good to follow rather than selecting people to follow automatically.

Over the next two weeks or so, Google said Buzz will display a new menu that will allow existing users to review who they are following.

On the “edit profile” page, people can also opt to not share lists of who they are following and their own followers, Jackson wrote.

In other changes, Buzz will no longer automatically connect to a person’s content on the Picasa photo service and Google Reader.

Google only shared items that users had already given permission for on both services, but users weren’t happy with the linkage.

Lastly, Google has added a link to allow users to either hide Buzz or shut it off completely. Users can go to the “Settings” tab. As of Monday morning, the Buzz tab now appears at the bottom of the page by “Google mail view,” which also lets people turn off the Gmail chat.

“We’re very sorry for the concern we’ve caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback,” Jackson wrote.

Barbara Krasnoff blog – So you thought Facebook had privacy issues

It’s natural that when you hear about a brand new Google app — especially one that’s obviously designed to confront Twitter and/or Facebook — the first thing you want to do is try it out.

So when I heard about Google Buzz, I immediately ran to my Gmail account to see if I had access. As it turned out, I didn’t — but by going to the mobile Web version, I found that I could check it out on my Android smart phone.

It looks like it will be an interesting application. But those who use it need to be very aware of how much information they are releasing in public.

Google Buzz is indeed a Facebook/Twitter do-alike. Your friends are defined by your existing Google contacts.

You can send a buzz (i.e. a status message) privately to a list of friends (if you use Google Contacts, you’ll already have various categories in place), to all your contacts, or as a public message.

One of the first things you are asked when you sign on — at least, when you sign on from a mobile phone — is to give Buzz access to your location information.

The first time I saw that, I agreed — however, I left open my options by unchecking the box that would remember that option.

I found the mobile interface to be quirky at best and a little confusing. What I took to be the main screen, so far as I could tell, lets you read a list of buzz messages from the people you are following or general public messages (you click a tab to switch from one to the other).

There is also a menu screen that offers information about the people you are following, about those who are nearby (assuming you agreed to have your location monitored), about your posts, and about the people following you. You can also find more people to follow.

I was interested to see that I was apparently already following three people — people on my contact list who, presumably, had already registered for Buzz. (It turned out they hadn’t — I called one, and he wasn’t even signed on to Google, and had no idea whether he had access or no.)

Since there wasn’t much happening there, I went to the “Nearby” screen. The first thing I saw was a button called “Buzz map” that led me to a list of places of interest — bars, supermarkets, other stores — in my immediate area. Nice.

The second thing I saw was a list of public “buzzes” from people in my immediate area (including somebody who obligingly mentioned that he wasn’t wearing any clothes). Under each buzz was the person’s location — not the general location, but the full address. Street number, street name, city, state.

Uh-huh.

I found the same situation when I did a search for public messages without specifying “Nearby.” Those people who had, presumably, given Google permission to access their locations were, very specifically, located.

(This screenshot shows a photo of my Droid’s screen; I manually blurred the address that appeared directly under the entry.) I immediately signed out of Buzz. When I signed in again, it again asked me for my location. This time, I declined the honour.

Of course, it isn’t as though we don’t have a choice here. We can use Buzz without choosing to reveal location information — or, probably, only reveal it to specific groups of contacts, although I couldn’t immediately find that in the somewhat limited interface on my Android phone.

But I’d be interested to know if the people who left their first completely public messages using their spanking new Buzz accounts were aware that their exact locations were being broadcast to anyone who happened to look in. Or whether they cared.

I certainly do.

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