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Google's new privacy policy starts March 1; 4 ways to prepare

February 29, 2012|By Deborah Netburn
  • Google Inc. headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in 2004.
Google Inc. headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in 2004. (Paul Sakuma / Associated…)

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

Google Inc. is changing its privacy policy Thursday, a move that is causing a lot of anxiety among Internet activists and some users. 

The changes in effect allow the world’s largest Internet company to collect information about its users across all its products, services and websites and store it in one place. The idea, Google says, is to create a comprehensive portrait of its users so it can offer more personalized services.

“In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience,” the company wrote in a Jan. 24 blog post that announced the changes.

The changes won’t be noticeable immediately, and Google’s websites and services will function like they always have. But privacy advocates -- and some European governments -- are worried that with the policy changes, Google will know more about who you are, who you talk to, what you watch, where you go, and perhaps most disturbingly, what you like to buy than any one company should know.

If you are among the hand-wringers, take heart. There are some simple steps you can take to keep Google from painting too accurate a portrait of your online habits.

1. Don't log into a Google account when you go online. Google's privacy changes mostly affect people who have a Google account such as Gmail or Google+. But even if you do have a Google account, you can still use plenty of Google's services -- including YouTube, Search and Maps -- without logging in first. The company may still show you targeted ads based on search terms, but at least that wart cream you just bought on CVS.com won't be linked to you forever.

2. Use another search engine. If you don't like that Google is keeping tabs on what you are looking for, you can always try another search engine when scouring the Internet for stories on Angelina Jolie and her leg. Even better, you can rotate between a number of search engines so that no one company has a complete picture of what (or who) you like to look for online.

3. Turn off the setting that allows Google to record your search history. Google has made it very simple to pause, edit or remove your search history via www.google.com/history. However, clearing your search history doesn't necessarily mean it is instantly deleted from Google's archive, according to Eva Galperin, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She explains, “With Web history enabled, Google will keep these records indefinitely; with it disabled, they will be partially anonymized after 18 months.”

4. Take your Google data and head for the hills. In the spirit of “being big without being evil” Google created the Data Liberation Front, a website that teaches people how to export data from some key Google platforms like Google Docs and Gmail so you can quit Google without leaving all your treasured documents and emails behind.

You can find it by, well, googling Data Liberation Front.

[For the Record, 4:49 p.m., Feb. 29: An earlier version of this story implied that clearing your search history would not immediately disassociate your search terms from your Google account. However, a Google spokeswoman confirmed that clearing your search history does disassociate previous search terms from your Google account.]

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