Google: “We borked the Buzz”

Well, that is not a direct quote, but Google has admitted that the early version of Google Buzz had serious flaws related to privacy, and this may be related to Google having skipped a step with its testing process.


The BBC has a story on this.

…Buzz was only tested internally and bypassed more extensive trials with external testers…

“We’ve been testing Buzz internally at Google for a while. Of course, getting feedback from 20,000 Googlers isn’t quite the same as letting Gmail users play with Buzz in the wild.”

The biggest problem was the automatic creation of a circle of “friends” based on who users most frequently emailed. So, for instance, your spouse, the person you are having an affair with, your boss down at the police station, your bookie, and the paypal account you set up specifically for pornography and sex toy purchases. These “friends” all get to see each other and can interact and stuff.

This also opened up the distinct possibility of, for instance, human rights activists getting Yahoo’ed.

Evgeny Morozov, a Belarus-born researcher and blogger who looks at the political implications of the internet [noted]:

“If I were working for the Iranian or the Chinese government, I would immediately dispatch my internet geek squads to check on Google Buzz accounts for political activists and see if they have any connections that were previously unknown to the government,” he wrote

This is all very interesting. This is a prime example of something many people have feared: Google gone bad, though I don’t think in this case on purpose. The possibility that one day you can wake up and discover that something as basic as your email system has suddenly been integrated into a publicly visible Facebook-like system that you didn’t even know was being planned is scary. Google still maintains, according to the BBC report, that the integration of Gmail and Buzz is still the best way to do this, although they may offer a separate service. But it isn’t the best way. Having it be possible to integrate Buzz and Gmail is nice, I suppose. But having something like Buzz, which is not email, and is entirely different, suddenly attached to your email system is like having your on-screen “Post-It” notes become a blog which, if you want, and if you even know it exists, can be made private, if you know what you are doing.

Do you know where all your Gmail accounts are right now, and if any of them are “Buzzed”?

Comments

  1. #1 Ray Ingles
    February 16, 2010

    Thankfully, it looks like since I didn’t have a Google profile nothing was leaked (this time).

    I’ve always been careful how I present myself online (and I was on Usenet back in the early 90’s). I’m on Facebook because a lot of friends and family are on there, but I don’t post anything that I wouldn’t mind seeing on the front page of the New York Times.

    I’m not particularly nefarious or anything, but I don’t want my emails (or even the info about who I’m emailing) to be scattered around…

  2. #2 chanson
    February 16, 2010

    I have two gmail accounts, and they were both automatically “buzzed”. Fortunately, neither one had a case of “I don’t want person X to know I know person Y”. I don’t mind the idea of a facebook-like service being linked to email, but I’m not planning to actively touch it until they get the privacy issues worked out.

  3. #3 katydid13
    February 16, 2010

    So far I seem to have avoided being buzzed. I was asked if I wanted to be when I logged in. I don’t want my gmail account social networked. That’s the listserv account.

  4. #4 Erin
    February 16, 2010

    This is exactly why I don’t typically chat about private matters online except within extremely secure confines with people I trust, and even then I’m not talking about anything I’d be upset about if it got out.

  5. #5 itzac
    February 16, 2010

    This was definitely more a case of google engineers saying, “Look what we can do!” Then implementing it without fully considering the implications.

    I’m still not sure I like it, though.

  6. #6 Tim D.
    February 16, 2010

    Erin, just make sure you don’t trust those people you trust….

  7. #7 Spiv
    February 17, 2010

    Indeed, both my gmail accounts got “buzzed.” I don’t think any unfortunate results, but it does bother me. Both have been disabled. I don’t allow ‘facebook’ to interface with my gmail information to search for friends, quite on purpose, and I’d like to continue to make that choice whatever the social networking system.

    Likewise I don’t allow family members who aren’t siblings on such accounts. Or co-workers, even if they are friends. Generational gaps cause misunderstandings and tensions that are not necessary. I’m very careful about what information I put online anyway, but even comments said in humor can be misconstrued.

    I agree with the sentiments of many above: google did a bad thing. They probably had great intentions and wanted to get everyone on with their cool new toy, but they should have maybe had a couple more sounding-board sessions to figure out all the implications before pulling the trigger. Hopefully this is a lesson learned.

  8. #8 travc
    February 17, 2010

    Google screwed up. The opt-in should have been much much more explicit and well documented with disclaimers. There should also be an option of buzz w/o any snarfing of info from your profile or gmail account. Hopefully lesson learned.

    On the other hand, in all but a very few cases (political dissidents and such), the connections revealed by buzz are fine. We have a serious case of unrealistic expectations about others, which this sort of snafu (or the ‘embarrassing photos on Facebook seen by boss’ phenomenon) does a little bit to tear down in the grand scheme of things. Yeah, it sucks a little now, but people really need to get a grip and have a more realistic sense or what is normal and appropriate.

    In most cases, It isn’t so much about loss of privacy as it is about people routinely trying to create and maintain false faces. Worse still, that basically dishonest behavior is actually expected and too many people actually think those false views others are the real people.

  9. #9 Spiv
    February 17, 2010

    travc: that may be true, but unfortunately it is the world we live in. My personal life in no way affects my capabilities in my professional life, but the unrealistic perceptions of others certainly could. People, real people, are full of biases and bigotry of all shapes. The less they know about me, the less likely I am to accidentally stumble across such things.

    Additionally people are incredibly bad at drawing conclusions from very little data. Face validity rules the world, not empirical validity. No matter how much we want it to be the other way.

  10. #10 travc
    February 18, 2010

    Spiv, you are certainly right about “the world we live in”. I’m doing job applications at the moment and really do get it.

    I’m just thinking, in the longer term, society will adjust to the new realities created by social media and surveillance tech. Transition periods always create some suckage.

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