Google Buzz Publicly Airs Privacy Confusion

Mixing an email tool with a social network may lead people to confuse the type of conversations that people can read across Google's Buzz social network. Some don't realize that all public posts are open for anyone using Gmail to search, read and join in the conversation.

No need to follow anyone on Google Buzz. Simply open the Buzz tab, type in a few keywords in the search keyword box and hit return on the computer keyboard. The tool returns all public posts across the Gmail network related to the keyword search.

Google does give Buzz users a way to make posts private or public. But some don't realize that making a profile public means any Gmail user can see the post. They can find it by searching on a related keyword in the Buzz search box.

Only posts that Gmail users choose to share publicly are included in Buzz search, according to a Google spokesperson. "Private posts are only shared with the people you choose, and will not appear publicly in search results," she says. "You choose whether to share your posts privately or to the Web at large. You can set your default as private, and you can also choose to make individual posts private or public."

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It may come down to confusion on the part of the Buzz user. Privacy policies are confusing. They typically are not well-written for the average person to understand. Jared Kaprove, domestic surveillance council at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says people may become confused about Buzz privacy policies because they typically think of email as a semi-private correspondence between the sender and the recipient. Mixing a social network with the tons of Gmail users might confuse people even more.

"It's a weird mix," Kaprove says. "The issue might be conceptual -- the blurring of the line between your email and public facing Internet use."

Put simply: When people post on Twitter, they know it's a public activity. When people use Gmail, they think it's a private activity. Buzz blurs the line between presumed public and private activities.

For instance, in response to a Buzz post by Chris Myler asking Google Software Engineer DeWitt Clinton whether followers can see all posts, Adewale Oshineye and Larry Anderson respond by writing that people can only see the posts of those they follow, which is untrue.

The Federal Trade Commission regulates unfair and deceptive trade practices, but these guidelines likely won't come into play here because the company would have to represent the feature to consumers as being private, but later reveal it as public.

Maybe so, but the search box changes that behavior because it allows people to search and find posts based on keywords. Similar to google. com, the search engine will likely collect, store and analyze the search queries, and tie them to contextual advertisements in Gmail, as well as to ads that run across the Google Content Network.

Electronic Frontier spokeswoman Rebecca Jeschke calls Google a "honey pot" of information collected from a variety of tools, such as search and Gmail. "They know who you are and what you're searching for," she says. "They only keep the information for a specific length of time, and then make it anonymous, but make no mistake they have it. And because it's a honey pot, people want it, whether law enforcement or marketers."

The search engine inside Gmail is much more powerful than site search in Twitter. Twitter allows people to search and find tweets across the network, but the posts, or tweets, are limited to 140-characters or less and they are not tied to an email service.

There have been a host of privacy issues surrounding Buzz. The EPIC is reviewing what happens when users first activate the account because it makes the follower list public by default, and the list of who they follow is derived from the most common email contact.

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