Buzz off — Why you won’t want Google Buzz following your contacts

A day after its launch, privacy concerns have been raised about Google’s new Gmail-based social-networking tool, Buzz.

At issue is a feature that compiles a list of the Gmail contacts who users most frequently e-mail or chat with.

Buzz automatically starts following these people and makes the list public, meaning strangers can see who Buzz users have been in contact with.

The issue was noted by the Silicon Alley Insider on Wednesday. “Imagine … a wife discovering that her husband emails and chats with an old girlfriend,” the Web site said. “Imagine a boss discovers a subordinate emails with executives at a competitor.”

There are some mitigating factors, however. Buzz only shares information about other people who are using Buzz and have set up public profiles in Google.

So currently, most Gmail users are not publicly listed by the service. Users can also “unfollow” people who they don’t want to be linked to.

And while Buzz requires users to set up a public profile before they can post messages, it does give them an option to hide who they are following and who is following them.

However, the default setting is to make the information public, and only users who click on an “edit” tab can see the choice to opt out. That means many people who start using Buzz may be publicly linked to other users without realizing it.

Reached Wednesday afternoon, a Google spokesman had no immediate comment.

Google introduced Buzz as an alternative to popular sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which are increasingly being used to navigate the Web.

Read Sharon Machlis’ blog on the topic

Many Google aficionados scoff when I say I do not use my Gmail account for sensitive personal or business communications.

In fact, I’m surprised when I hear that any Web-savvy users do. The reason used to be that Google admitted crawling the messages to serve “more relevant” ads.

Now I’ve got another.

If you leave Google Buzz in default mode, it will automatically start following people for you — apparently the people you’ve e-mailed most often. And, those you follow appear in your public profile.

As Silicon Valley Insider points out, unless you proactively change these settings, everyone knows your most valuable contacts.

It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with scenarios where that would be, well, less than ideal. A journalist contacting confidential sources. An executive communicating with a headhunter.

Says Silicon Valley Insider:
It gets to a deeper problem with Google Buzz: It’s built on e-mail, which is a very different Internet application than a social network.

The good news for Google is that this is a very easy problem to fix. Google must either shut off auto-following, or it must make follower lists private by default as soon as possible.

Yes. E-mail and social networking are not always the same. I definitely have a different relationship — and privacy expectation — with Twitter followers than people I e-mail. Even if some of them overlap, they all don’t.

Barbara Krasnoff already pointed out the privacy issue with Google Buzz on a mobile device, where it announces your location along with your posts.

Google’s lax attitude about this sort of thing is also why I refuse to use Gmail on my mobile phone — I simply have no idea what they plan on doing with my information someday.

Google didn’t immediately comment on the issue when contacted by the IDG News Service.

I like Google products. I use Gmail regularly for non-sensitive messages. I use and enjoy Google Docs (and love that they’ve added scripting capability to free Google Apps accounts).
I regularly use Google for searching and Google News to find articles about hot stories.

But if they want me to trust them enough with more important information, they need to take privacy more seriously.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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