Google Buzz privacy debacle

So… as I said just 2 days ago, I tried Buzz.

And as I also said, « certainly missed a boatload of things and got some wrong ». Famous last words. How right I was !

I tried Buzz just like half the planet actually, which I didn’t realize until yesterday, when I found my Gmail account spammed by people I never heard about before, replying on my buzzes or writing buzzes I received or subscribing to my stuff.

I was panic-struck, just like the rest of the planet. That was the main theme of the comments I saw: « I’m panicking, are you? » « Oh yes I am, but who are you and how come you write this in my Buzz? ».

It somehow found the feed to this blog. I still haven’t quite figured out how; maybe that’s my fault, maybe not; anyway I validated it. I’m glad I wasn’t using Blogger, sorry but I’ve got enough knives planted in my back at the moment.

I did what everybody did yesterday evening: shut down all the incoming feeds, deleted posts and/or comments (“did I write something to my contacts that’s not for public consumption?”), tried to shut down everything outgoing, checked out all my subscribers, and tried to figure out how the damn thing decides that something should be visible or not visible, by others from me or by me from others. I’m still freaked out.

I still think this stuff makes Facebook look like amateur privacy violators by comparison. Even the quote by Eric Schmidt about privacy looks like a detail now (even though it was right-on).

The major, enormous psychological (not technical) error is that this was placed in the Gmail account; something you typically expect to be private. Putting there stuff that’s geared to be broadcast all over the place, in a opt-out way (second major error: everything is public by default, and you can’t ever revert to private after publishing, your only bet is to delete), is a tragically bad, bad, bad idea. Third error, fuzzy rules (recommendations? I’m not even sure) allowing buzzes to skip over contact boundaries.

By putting Buzz inside of Gmail, Google probably wanted to drive up adoption. Well done, it’s adopted all over the place with posts and comments and blog posts and tweet guts spilled everywhere, aggregated, resent, accessible without your knowledge. What a sorry mess. Evil? Still not sure about that. Ill-considered, that’s for sure.

Fourth, but not least, error — but is that really an error? Looks like a strategy, really –, Google confuses public availability with right-to-broadcast. My buzzes or blog posts being public does not mean that I want Google to spam these to contacts of contacts of contacts.

I’ll have to wait until the dust settles in my mind to know whether I really want to use this stuff. It’ll remain anyway as one of my most creepy experiences of late.

Already we see blog posts everywhere flowing about people who’ve unknowingly leaked private information to bosses, ex-husbands and so on. Too many to mention.

Update: Sixth error, the blocking of followers is not real security over leakage. It’s cleaning up after the fact (see the blog post linked-to above).

Update (21h41): Seventh error, and now (since when? since Buzz? No idea whatsoever, seems new since it also appears on my buzzes now) my Orkut photograph has been imported to my Gmail profile and appears to all my chat contacts. I never asked for that… it’s a photograph of me at the age of 3 months! Never meant to be visible in Gmail.

Eight error: so obvious I missed it… the followers/followee list is public by default “Display the list of people I’m following and people following me”. Which means you have a privacy leak in your contact list, since that’s where the followers come from.

This is insane. I think Google really has jumped the shark, this time. I’m out of Buzz for the foreseeable future.

Update (23h38): additional thoughts in relation to the above… Google apparently doesn’t realize that mail contacts (many kinds of people) are very different from friends in a social network; the contact or chat list may look like a friends list functionally, but they do not contain the same kind of people and do not serve the same purpose. It’s obvious if you look at  who’s in your own respective lists. A lot of confusion stems from that. Google is trying to “Facebookize” the Gmail ecosystem and the fit just can’t be good. Maybe that’s a cultural problem.

Update (0h06): an idea I just got. If the Buzz follower/followee lists actually were new lists, treated like real friends lists starting from zero (i.e. not based on any contact list, not even with a pre-filled checkbox list), with a reciprocal acknowledge just like in social networks, the user would really be more in control, with the actual feeling of starting up his own, separate network.

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