Problems with online overexposure and turning off or disabling Google Social Search

Readers of my last post no doubt expected that I would write about HP and Palm next. I applaud the move for reasons I will explain later, but for now I want to talk about something perhaps more important: privacy.

Some people want to share absolutely everything online. The Foursquare satire, Please Rob Me, and heavily funded startup, Blippy, have shown that doing so is not always a good idea. Some Blippy members’ credit and debit card numbers were published to the world in Google search results. The privacy breach continued even after a supposed fix. Whoops.

Blippy security breach
(Credit card numbers in search results — every webmaster’s worst nightmare and every thief’s dream)

Before you call me a Luddite, I should say that I love social networking sites as long as I retain control over who sees what. Of course Blippy’s problem was due to a lapse in security, but it never would have happened if users had chose not to discard their privacy by volunteering their credit card numbers in the first place. And lest you ask, Blippy is different than a typical eCommerce site because its raison d’être is the overexposure of sharing shopping behavior.

I think there needs to be a little more common sense from consumers and independent analysis in the online industry. It should not require FTC investigations or Congressional oversight, as was suggested after Google Buzz complaints (warning, contains justified profanity). It means the fourth estate doing their job.

For instance, despite the backlash against Google Buzz, initial concerns about Google Social Search have all but disappeared.

Google Buzz

(Many users flocked last month to turn off Google Buzz, a service they were never asked to turn on)

In only a few months, the service went from an experiment met with skepticism, even as an explicitly optional feature in Google Labs, to yet another social networking service enabled without our consent.

Google Social Search
(Google Social Search results)

When triggered by relevant keyword searches, the service highlights results from within your social circle that Google has been kind enough to organize for you. Most results including the one I’ve blurred out are generally inconspicuous. It’s the automatic publicizing of your private contacts that is disconcerting.

Worse still is that Google Social Search still looms in the background even after you turn off Google Buzz, and it’s very hard to disable if you’re so inclined. In fact, you can’t actually turn it off. The best you can do is merely remove its ability to update.

Google Social Circle
(My social circle according to Google before I removed my profile and contact list)

So instead of simply offering an option to turn Social Search off (let alone asking you if you wanted it in the first place), Google has you jump through four different hoops hidden under “See how to change and troubleshoot your social circle”.

First, you have to delete your Google Profile. Then you have to delete all of your GMail contacts AND Google Talk contacts. In other words, make GMail almost useless and stop using Google Talk altogether.

After that, you get a “blank slate” on Google Social Search. That means Google doesn’t know about any of your connections, but the service is still technically active.

I never liked Google automatically adding people in my email correspondence to my contacts or Google Talk. Now Google Social Search determines that mere communication to be evidence of a connection substantial enough to display in someone else’s search results.

So I’ve cut the cord and will no longer use GMail for personal correspondence and will probably advise organizations against using GMail in the future. Maybe you should rethink whether or not you want to use it too.

I personally like the new Yahoo Mail. It has this crazy feature called folders and had drag-and-drop long before GMail.

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©2011 Adam Edwards