Google Talk May Not Be As Cheap As You Think

By | February 8, 2006

We should probably start being more careful about what we wish for. Google Talk is now offering, apparently because of public demand, histories of chats stored in your Gmail account. Useful stuff. But accessing those histories will involve seeing contextual ads next to them, as per ordinary Gmail messages.

The relevant part of the FAQ says

There are no ads in your chat sessions or your Quick Contacts list. Once a chat is saved, however, it becomes just like a Gmail message. And just as you may see relevant ads next to your Gmail messages, there now may be ads alongside your saved chats. Ads are only displayed when you’re viewing a saved chat, and as with all ads in Gmail, they are matched entirely by computers. Only ads classified as Family-Safe are shown and we are constantly improving our technologies to prevent displaying any inappropriate ads. One of the things many Gmail users have told us is how much they appreciate the unobtrusive text ads in Gmail, as opposed to the large, irrelevant, blinking banner ads they often see in other services, and many have even cited the usefulness of the ads in Gmail.

It’s a useful feature, but at some point shouldn’t we start asking ourselves whether all this stored information is not a tad dangerous, whether it’s held by Google or anyone else? Already we are a little lax about what we say when we’re emailing people, but this is nothing compared to instant messsaging. A throwaway line in chat will be stored — possibly forever — on someone else’s computer if you chat with them. Now, if you use this Gmail option, another copy will be stored on a computer you’ll never really be able to track down. (This latter element is not the case with Skype, for example, which archives the chats on your own computer.)

Here’s why. Note the changes to the Google Talk Privacy Notice. Notice, among other things, that your Google Talk “personal information” is no longer deleted after a reasonable period — although “activity information” is. Neither of these terms are laid out fully and unequivocably. Even if you do decide to delete chat histories stored in your Gmail account, “because of the way we maintain this service, such deletion may not be immediate, and residual copies may remain on backup systems media.” In other words, don’t assume those chats will ever completely disappear.

This is not just about Gmailing your chat histories. It’s about using chat itself. For a company determined not to do evil, Google is surprisingly coy about what data it stores about you. Look at these changes to the Privacy Policy for example (parentheses indicate removal since the last version of the Policy, underlined text indicates additions):

 When you use Google Talk, [[Google’s servers automatically]] we may record [[certain]] information about your [[use of the service]] usage, such as when you use Google Talk, the size of your contact list and the contacts you communicate with, and the frequency and size of data transfers. Information displayed or clicked on in the Google Talk interface (including UI elements, settings, and other information) is also recorded. [[We delete personal information from the Google Talk logs after a period of time reasonably necessary to do so. ]]

On one hand it’s great that Google shows us what has been changed, deleted or added to its policy. But then again, we’d have found out anyway. And although I want Google’s bots trawling through my half-formed thoughts on chat even less than I want them trawling through my email, this is not really about Google. It’s about us thinking hard about how we treat these tools — email, chat, even VoIP calls or webcam exchanges — when we realise that what we type (or possibly say, or show of ourselves) is going to be stored somewhere, for a long, long time. And one thing we’ve learned in the past few weeks is that ‘not being evil’ is not quite as absolute a conviction as we thought it was.


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