Digital Life


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, before they are bringing you the news on the radio, the television or the Web, many journalists get their start on campus. We are going to hear from two students who are breaking ground in college journalism. We'll find out how in just a few minutes.

But, first, for all the Google users out there, major privacy changes are coming tomorrow. The tech giant will combine user data from all its products, so if you are signed in to Gmail and you decide to watch a YouTube video and then check out your friend's vacation photos on Picasa - well, Google can take that data to create a single, fuller portrait of you and serve up more targeted advertising.

The new policy is getting all sorts of people riled up, from consumer groups in the U.S. to U.S. attorneys general and even the European Union. So what does all this mean?

Cecilia Kang is here to explain. She's a national technology reporter for The Washington Post and she joins us now from the newsroom. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

CECILIA KANG: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: The people who are upset, what is it that they're so disturbed about?

KANG: Sure. Well, what they're upset and they're disturbed about is the idea that Google will be tracking them a little bit more closely and they have been collecting information through their services, but in silos. And so they haven't been able to stitch together, for example, what you do on YouTube with the photos that you posted on Picasa and what you say in your Gmail addresses. But now they can, so they can form a portrait, that not only do you like to shop for certain things on the Google search site, but you also like to surf for particular videos, and this all builds a portrait of who Michel Martin is.

MARTIN: Is there a concern, though, that this information could be abused or that it might be easier to abuse the information than it has been previously? I think many people who use email services have become familiar with friends who've had their accounts hacked, frankly.

KANG: Sure.

MARTIN: And then they get these bogus messages saying someone I know had been mugged while in Madrid and would I send them money and all this nonsense. You know, and I knew perfectly well that this person was not in Madrid and so I was able to alert her that her account had been hacked.

But is there a concern, somehow, that this would make it even easier to misappropriate people's identities?

KANG: I think, any time that a user feels like they're less in control of their information, it presents new concerns. And particularly, users just don't want to be surprised. But what we are essentially doing with Google now is you're trusting that they're going to protect your information across the services, which they've promised to do anyway.

But we've seen instances in the past where people have hacked into Google mail called Gmail. In fact, even White House staff members had their own Gmail accounts hacked last June. So, yes, there's a concern that as Google builds bigger profiles of people and more complete profiles of people, that anyone from the outside, a third party, can go in and access what Google has amalgamated into a more complete picture of an individual. Yes.

MARTIN: We're talking about the new Google privacy overhaul. It goes into effect tomorrow. Our guest is Cecilia Kang, national technology reporter for The Washington Post.

OK, so now let's talk about if there is a way to avoid being tracked across various Google services. There really is no way to opt out completely, is there, without just not using the services?

KANG: Sure. Michel, you're right on target. There is no way to avoid this new tracking system if you're using the most popular services, which is Gmail. You can, of course, still search anonymously. You don't have to sign in to an account, but as long as you are signed into or logged into a Google account - and that would include Google Reader. That would include Google Docs and Calendar, a lot of the applications that are so popular.

If you are logged in, then essentially this Google new privacy policy will apply, no matter what. You cannot opt out of it.

MARTIN: You can remove your Web history and I understand that today is...

KANG: That's right.

MARTIN: ...actually the last day to do that. There's a very easy how-to guide from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Are you going to do that?

KANG: I already have. And I think that, for the listeners out there, there are some things they can do that - what you mentioned is one thing - is to erase their Web search history. Another thing they can do is they can actually disable on Google a feature that allows Google to target ads at them, specifically. They can still collect data, but not - it limits Google's ability to really target in a very specific way. There's a feature to do that.

And another thing that they can do is to just - like, again, I said - is to do things more anonymously. Don't log into YouTube and just search for videos and watch videos anonymously.

The other thing you can also do is just to cancel your accounts completely, which is a pretty drastic measure for folks. But you can, and Google has a service called the Data Liberation Front. And they have a website for that that allows you to export, or take all your information with you if you wanted to, if you choose to close down one of their accounts.

MARTIN: And as we mentioned, finally, there is a lot of opposition against Google. We know that they received a letter from a group of attorneys general, for example. We know that there are ministers at the European Union who have raised concerns about this. And the privacy laws in different European countries are different than they are here, so that has to be said.

But do you sense that there is a strong enough groundswell to cause this tech giant to reconsider this policy?

KANG: You know, so far - no. Google told the European regulators who had told them that they are so concerned about the privacy policy and who asked Google to postpone the deployment of it that they were going to go ahead and go forward and that they felt like they've adequately informed users on how the privacy policies will affect them. So, at this point - no.

For Google, this is a business decision. This is a business practice decision for them.

MARTIN: Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter for The Washington Post. We caught up with her at the newsroom there. Cecilia, thank you so much for joining us. Will you keep us posted?

KANG: I would love to. Thank you.

MARTIN: And we won't track your Web searches. We promise.

KANG: OK. Thank you.

MARTIN: If you want more information and tips on how to update or change your Google privacy settings, we will post them on our website. Just go to, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

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