U’s Google contract shields school from new privacy measures

Google’s new policy will combine user data across applications.
February 09, 2012

 

As Google makes sweeping changes to its privacy policy, the University of Minnesota’s accounts are shielded from the new rules.

Google recently announced it will track user activity across all of its websites starting March 1, but the University’s contract with the company exempts the school from the new policy.

The company will combine user browsing habits from each of its platforms, including Gmail, Android smartphones and YouTube to generate targeted, localized ads and search results. Previously, each of Google’s more than 60 policies tracked user data separately.

“The new privacy policy does not change this contractual agreement between Google and the University,” said Ellen Puffe, spokeswoman for the University’s Office of Information Technology.

Google’s contract with the school places user privacy in the hands of the University under the company’s old policies. The University also gets to use Google’s applications ad free, except for retirees and alumni who retain their school accounts.

Data privacy and security became an issue for the University when Google would not sign a legal agreement to protect patient data for the University’s Academic Health Center, forcing the school’s medical institutions to opt out of using Gmail.

About 64,000 students use the University’s Google applications, according to OIT. This is a small fraction of the more than 1 billion autonomous users worldwide, according to last year’s data from Web analytics company comScore.

Concerns over privacy

While the changes do not apply directly to the University’s school accounts, they do apply to students’ personal accounts, said Michael Ekstrand, a University researcher at the College of Science and

Engineering.

“The revised privacy policy makes it a lot easier to understand Google’s privacy commitments and what they’re going to do with users’ data,” Ekstrand said.

But a number of digital advocacy groups are speaking out against the change.

Wednesday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the Federal Trade Commission  to block Google’s new policy.

In late January, eight U.S. Representatives sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page with concerns about Google’s policies, specifically whether users could opt out of the new rules.

“Google’s consolidation of its privacy policies potentially touches billions of people worldwide. As an Internet giant, Google has a responsibility to protect the privacy of its users,” the letter said.

Google responded to the representatives with a letter clarifying its position.

“Specifically, our [previous] policies meant that we couldn’t combine data from YouTube and search history with other Google products and services to make them better,” Google’s letter said.

For example, users looking for recipes on Google would then be recommended cooking videos on YouTube if they’re using both websites while logged into their accounts, the letter said.

While anonymous users will not be tracked under the new policy, privacy advocates view the changes as an affront to securing personal information.

“If you had a person following you in real life, you’d immediately see how creepy and unsettling that is,” said Sarah Downey, a lawyer and spokeswoman for digital privacy company Abine.

Some of the most “trusted” and largest websites, including Facebook and Google, are among the biggest privacy offenders, she said.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet advocacy group, objected to Google’s lack of transparency about what their new policies actually are, said Rebecca Jeschke, a spokeswoman for the group. In response, EFF has been offering people advice on how better to protect their privacy.

“The current state of the Web makes it very difficult to be aware of who has access to information about you, let alone control it,” Ekstrand said.

To Ekstrand, a more significant change was Google’s announcement last month that all new accounts must create a Gmail address and Google+ profile to go along with it.

“Google is increasingly trying to get users folded into more and more of its connectivity services … while sounding loud alarms is probably a bit premature, it is definitely something to watch in the future.”

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