On March 1, Google changed its privacy policy and the way it collects information from its hundreds of millions of users.  Chances are, you are included in that number, as are most of your family and friends, which is why Google’s recent actions have generated such intense interest.  Some users have grown concerned because the Internet giant is now aggregating and integrating a user’s entire web surfing history and habits into a common digital profile.

Prior to the change, those who subscribed to any one of a number of Google-owned sites agreed to the collection of private information about them by only that particular site.  For example, information gathered from a YouTube (yes, it is owned by Google) user would be retained and utilized by YouTube alone.

But now, all the information about someone that Google gathers from its various business segments is consolidated.  So, what one does on YouTube is now shared with other Google-owned services such as Gmail, Blogger, and Google Maps.

So, in the new Google system, you have a single identity profile that can be sliced and diced, mixed in a blender, and extrapolated any way the Internet giant deems in its self-interest.

Privacy vs. convenience

The key issue here is whether Internet users are prepared to give up privacy in return for greater efficiency of services.  While many people find the Internet a valuable tool for communication, work, education, and entertainment, privacy is a core value of American culture and an asset not easily relinquished by most.

CNN noted the conundrum that Google’s new privacy policy poses for all Internet users is the challenge of the Internet age itself:  Better and more creative Internet services means giving up greater amounts of personal privacy.  And while web users fear the loss of privacy, Google and other firms focus on the potential for new services and products.

Internet users must bear in mind that Google is neither gathering an increased quantity of personal data on its subscribers, nor new kinds of data.  Furthermore, Google subscribers can adjust their privacy settings to limit how the company uses their personal data and can even use Google services without logging in.  Private information cannot be gathered at all with this kind of anonymous activity.

Internet privacy rules broken?

Still, BBC News has reported that European Union commissioners doubt Google’s new policy conforms to EU privacy rules and transparency requirements.  European, particularly French, regulators have expressed deep concerns to Google, and an investigation is going forward.

Google is also under scrutiny in the United States for monitoring the web-surfing habits of users of Safari, a browser found on Apple Macintosh computers.  If investigated, this would be the second run-in Google has had with the Federal Trade Commission in recent years; an earlier FTC complaint concerned possible deception by Google involving its now-defunct social media platform, Buzz.

Google’s policy change may be heavy-handed, but is not necessarily improper:  Though users may feel violated, the company has not, in fact, broken its own privacy policy.

Business culture:  Profit over privacy

The Wharton Business School online publication, Knowledge@WhartonToday, has explored the culture inside Google. Business ethics experts commented that a culture clash occurs inside all companies over security and privacy, but particularly inside technology companies. This usually happens between legal teams and IT engineers, and the push for new products often comes out ahead.

The Wharton ethics professors concluded that in engineering oriented cultures, privacy and security might be considered a secondary item, where potential privacy errors are simply things to be cleaned up rather than designed around.

Business insurance for privacy policy violations

Technology insurance is available for companies with security and privacy risk, including business practices that unintentionally conflict with a company’s stated privacy policy.  Other areas covered under this kind of business insurance include fines and penalties levied by regulatory agencies such as the FTC.