Google Buzz: A privacy checklist

Buzz lets you share photos, links, status messages, and more. But if you're not careful, you may share more than you expect.

If you've heard of Google Buzz, chances are you've also heard about some of the privacy concerns that surround it. The social media service offers some cool ways to share photos, links, status messages, and more with fellow Google Buzz users. But if you're not careful, you may end up sharing more than you expect.

Silicon Alley Insider raised some very real privacy concerns about Google Buzz this week, noting that the service ends up exposing many of your e-mail contacts by default. That's a problem if you have e-mail contacts you'd rather not make public.

You also can't hide your e-mail contacts without cutting them off from your Buzz network.   But why should you have to choose between exposing your personal and professional relationships or connecting with people on Google Buzz? Facebook recently changed its privacy settings to allow you to hide your friends list; shouldn't Buzz do the same?

Another problem is that to use Buzz you have to create a public Google profile, which could end up exposing your Google e-mail address. Your e-mail address is one of the last barriers preventing people from getting in direct contact with you, so you may not want it out on the Web, for anyone to see. By comparison, Facebook doesn't allow people to get access to your "real" e-mail address unless you decide to make it public.

So before you send out your first Buzz this morning, take a look at this privacy checklist, and make sure you're comfortable with all your personal information that could be exposed through your Google profile.

What your Google Profile Is

To use Google Buzz you have to sign up for a public Google profile that will primarily be seen by other Google users. Your Google profile shows other people who you are, and allows you to share Web content like your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles from one place.

You can, if you choose, make your profile semi-public by removing your full name. This stops Google from displaying your profile in Google search results, but it's important to note you can't make your Google profile as private as your Facebook account can be. Anyone who knows the URL of your Google profile will be able to see its contents, regardless of whether or not your profile is searchable.

Everybody knows your e-mail address now

Here's the thing about Google's Web services: if Gmail was the first service you signed up for, then almost every single Google service you activate after that uses your Gmail username by default.

So, for some Gmail users, your Google profile will incorporate your Gmail username into your URL, which ends up looking something like this: www.google.com/profiles/johndoe. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that tacking on @gmail.com to the last part of that URL will reveal the e-mail address for some Gmail users.

You do have the choice to change the URL of your public Google profile so it doesn't include your Gmail username. But the option to change your URL is really no choice at all, because alternative URLs are complicated and impossible to remember, and often end up looking something like this: http://www.google.com/profiles/12345678900987654321. A better option than a 20-character URL would be to allow users to customize their URL any way they like, or at least allow those who have the same username for their Gmail and Google accounts to customize it.

For some people, making your e-mail address public may not be a problem, but if you are using your Gmail account as a private address where you want only a few people to reach you, then you may want to think twice about using Google Buzz. I also have to wonder if Google Buzz won't end up creating the largest directory in the world for e-mail spammers. Sure, that information may be made available on other networks like Facebook and Twitter, but again you only expose your e-mail address on those networks if you choose to, while some Gmail users are not really given that option.

Adding Links

As part of your public Google profile, you can provide links to all the various social media services you use like Facebook, Friendfeed, Flickr, Picasa, Delicious, Foursquare, MySpace, Twitter, blogs, and so on. Today would be a good day to ask yourself whether you're comfortable with the fact that you've made it so easy for people to access this information. If a prospective employer, for example, found your Google profile is there anything there you wouldn't want them to see?

Also, don't forget that anything you decide to share publicly on Buzz will also be displayed on your Google profile and potentially indexed for Google's search engine. So you might think twice before posting that link and giving a thumbs up to a legalize marijuana viral campaign.

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Ian Paul

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