Google Integrates Gmail and Google+, Raising Privacy Concerns

Given the tendency for social networkers to connect with anyone and everyone, without questioning who or what they are, this raises some privacy concerns. "I've got a bigger following than you," is the new bragging norm. However, the new Gmail feature goes further – all a user needs do is follow someone to be able to email that person even if he or she does not know the email address; the recipient does not need to follow back first.

Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center, called the new feature 'troubling.' "There is a strong echo of the Google Buzz snafu," he said. 

"Buzz initially used its Gmail users' contact lists to create social networks that the rest of the world could see, leading to an uproar and ultimately a settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission," notes Reuters.

Like the original Buzz, this new Gmail feature is default-on. So unless users actually see the accompanying email from Google, it will again effectively be applied covertly. Google is already in trouble with the European Union over its policies, and particularly for making opt-outs difficult to find and implement over the collection of personal data. In this case, however, the opt-out is relatively easy.

A new option in the Gmail settings allows users to receive emails from anyone on Google+, from no one on G+, from those already in their Circles (similar to 'friends'), or from extended circles (similar to 'friends of friends'). 

Google believes it is a positive and helpful feature. "Have you ever started typing an email to someone only to realize halfway through the draft that you haven't actually exchanged email addresses?" asks Gmail product manager David Nachum in the announcement. If so, "you’re in luck, because now it's easier for people using Gmail and Google+ to connect over email."

This certainly has some benefits in some circumstances; but the New York Times reports that the announcement "was met with protest by some Gmail users, who said it opened the door to spam and unwanted solicitations in personal email inboxes, which are considered private."

Google has gone some way to addressing this issue for people using the 'tabs' feature. Only emails from connections will appear in the primary section while all others will be relegated to the social tab. Furthermore, if the recipient does not respond to those emails, the sender will not be able to send any further emails. 

Nevertheless, the biggest criticism will remain: for privacy activists the complaint is that Google has yet again imposed an opt-out service rather than an opt-in service.

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