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THOUGHT: Did Google cross the Privacy Line with its latest Release of Hangouts for Android?
Posted by Arne Hess - on Saturday, 16.11.13 - 17:22:02 CET under 09 - Thoughts - Viewed 19042x
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Ever, since we were talking about mobile texting, we were talking about unified messaging and the unified inboxes. This became even more important when E-Mail and MMS were added to mobile phones and since we have smartphones with its countless ways to communicate, it seems to be even more important. Looks like Google saw it the same and with the recently announced Google Hangouts update for Android, Google added some - on the first sight - "useful" features. For instance can Google Hangouts now be used for sending and receiving SMS and MMS messages. And it's even able to import existing messages from other SMS and MMS clients to make the move to Hangouts even more convenient.

This sounds incredible useful since it allows to quickly switch between SMS, MMS and Hangouts chats. Also new to Hangouts is the feature which shows now which device the user is on (PC, tablet or smartphone) as well as it shows Hangouts aka Google+ contacts if a user is on a voice call or video chat. Pardon me? It shows the world, and Google, if I'm on a call?

Let's recap what Google knew about me so far. It knew what I was searching for (Google Search) and it knew the content of the E-Mails I sent and received (Gmail). It also new my friends and business contacts (Gmail) and Google even knew the content of the documents I was working on, from Word, to Excel to PowerPoint (Google Drive). Google knew where I was, where I went to and where I planned to go to (Google Maps) and Google also knew the locations of my friends (Google Maps, now Google+). Google knew which music I was listening (Google Music), which books I read (Google Books) and which movies I watched (Google Movies). And there are countless other services, not listed here, which told Google even more about me.
So what's next? In future Google will know who's calling me or who I'm calling, with the help of Google+ where it will match MSIDNs with Google+ profiles and if I don't give Google my MSISDN for privacy reasons, with the new Google Hangouts feature it knows at least that I'm in a call anyway, even if it doesn't know who was calling me or who I was calling.

And instead of keeping this information for itself, to profile me even further (which is already bad enough), Google is now sharing this info with my Google+ contacts and shows them if I'm in a voice call on my phone or a video conversation via Hangouts. Sorry guys, but that's way too much information you have from me and that's way too much information you are sharing about me, with - let's say it this way - casual Internet friends I might be connected with on Google+ but which I never met in person. I'm sure, most (if not all) of my Google+ contacts are nice guys but can I be sure?

Google's informal corporate motto used to be "Don't be evil" but how can I trust an anonymous company "not to be evil"; if it stores most of my very personal data, without any knowledge what it will do with it or who will have access to it (think about PRISM and the NSA). No, I'm far from having anything to hide, not more than everyone else, but does the Internet need to really know if I'm in a call or video conference? That's far beyond any privacy.

Google catches the user with the "convenience factor" and this "social sharing is carrying" fun element and for sure all the features above are - in general - convenient and for sure it's fun stuff and useful to see my friends on a map, helping us to discover each other to meet for a coffee or a beer. But do I want that half the Internet knows where I'm at the moment? Yes, I'm also using Foursquare, because it's also fun to check-in, collect badges and possibly share my check-in with my friends and even the world - via Twitter or Facebook. But there are situations where I don't want that even close friends or family members know where I am and Foursquare still lets me control it. But thinking about a publicly accessible real time map of my location would be the worst case for me. Quite similar is the fact that Google informs my contacts that I'm in a call. What's next, also showing the phone number and name of the person I'm talking to?

In my humble opinion Google crossed a line now where useful and helpful services went too far and it's definitely nothing I will support. As a result I turned off the SMS and MMS feature in Hangouts but using the original clients instead. I also turned off the notification if I'm in a voice call or video conversation because that's no one's business. And last but not least I've deleted my phone number in Google+. Not because I don't want to be identified if I'm calling someone, but because I don't want that Google is recording it.

Can I be sure that Google respect it? I don't know, who knows what "turning off" a feature mean and it might be a typical German paranoia which is driving me here but safety and privacy first; doesn't matter how much convenience I will lose. At the end of the day it comes to the question if you will still feel comfortable with the platform you are using and I use this faith and trust every day more.

Cheers ~ Arne


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