Using Google Apps? What You Need to Know

By Doug Miller

If you are a paying Google Apps for Government, Business or Education customer like me, you have probably been following all the coverage on how Google’s new privacy policy may or may not impact you. There is a lot of conflicting information coming from bloggers, law makers, Google themselves and others on what applies to whom.

I’d like to offer three observations from reviewing my Google Apps privacy terms and what appears to be in effect now. For readers that are not aware, Google offers about 70 consumer products such as Google Search, Picasa, Gmail and YouTube that are covered by a consumer-oriented set of terms. Google also offers 7 of its services (such as Gmail and Google Docs) under the Google Apps program for business, education and government customers. The use of these products is covered by a different terms of service. Business and government customers pay Google an annual per user fee for the use of these products. Education customers can sign up for these apps for free.

Common privacy policy

Despite quotes from Google spokespeople that there are separate privacy terms for enterprise, educational and government users of Google Apps, when I click on the Privacy Policy link at the bottom of my Google Apps Gmail session, I am taken to the standard Privacy Terms that appear to apply to all Google users for all Google services. There are no special privacy terms for paying Google Apps customers and as far as I can see, based on public information, other government and education customers are also now bound by those new common terms. I won’t comment on whether these new terms are good or bad for privacy except to highlight that the major new change is that Google acknowledges that they will share data across all Google services. Google Apps customers need to determine if the sharing, which has actually been going on for some time, is a cause for concern.

Not all Google services are covered by the terms of the Google Apps agreement

The second major consideration that Google Apps customers need to be aware of is if a user leaves the 7 apps that are covered under the Google Apps agreement and use any of the other 60 or so Google services such as Google Search, Google+, YouTube or Picasa, they are no longer covered by the terms of the Google Apps agreement that is in effect for their organization. The user is now covered by a consumer-oriented set of terms that allow for data tracking, advertising and sharing. If your domain administrator has these additional services turned on (which are typically turned on by default), then the user has access to these services using their Google Apps credentials. What many users may not appreciate though is when you use these consumer services, you are now potentially opening the door for your business data to be used by these consumer products. For example, our domain has Google+ enabled. If I use Google+ while logged in as a Google Apps user, Google+ actively mines my confidential emails in Gmail and proposes new contacts that I should consider added into my Google+ circles. Not just users in my private contact database but looking at who I am sending email from and suggesting I add these people to my Google+ circles. I also receive notice that my Android phone is also being mined for potential contacts.

Google+ integration

Cross-integration between Google+, Gmail and Android.

This somehow does not seem appropriate that a consumer social networking tool is mining my private business emails. The only way to opt out of this is to have our domain administrator disable Google+. There is no opt-out of this type of sharing if I want to use Google+ as a business user.

No barrier between business apps and consumer apps

My final observation is that while I have an increasingly integrated experience as a user of Google products, there is no notification to Google Apps users when they leave the confines of the Google Apps agreement. As I move from business apps such as Gmail and Google Docs to consumer apps such as Google Search or Google+ there is no notice that I am now no longer a business user or that any content I submit while using the non-Google Apps service is available for use by Google for any purpose. Even doing something as simple as clicking on “search the web” from within my Gmail account, in fact takes me from what is supposed to be a business offering instantly over to a consumer service that presents ads and tracks my use. Again, there is no notice that I am no longer considered a business user. Given that the same privacy policy applies to both types of sessions and this policy provides for the sharing of data across all Google services, I have to wonder where exactly does my data stand if I use any of Google’s consumer products? If Google+ has access to my private emails, what else is exposed? As one educator commented, what “he fears is that a student will log into a school account and access non-core services that don’t fall under the Apps for Education agreement, and then Google will use that as a backdoor route to also reach in and look at the FERPA-protected data as well.”

Summary

I certainly understand why Google, a company that makes 96% of its revenue from advertising, would want me as a professional user to also use its consumer ad-driven products. What I don’t understand is why there is no clear barrier between Google’s business and consumer products especially given that my business is paying Google for the use of its Google Apps products. Instead I have this seamless experience where my user context is constantly changing leaving me with the question, just how exposed is my business data to exploitation by Google to enhance their services and deliver better ads? I simply don’t know.

2 Responses to Using Google Apps? What You Need to Know

  1. […] customers who are storing sensitive government and taxpayer data in these services. Many, including myself, have written about these data protection issues and this has been an area of focus for regulators […]

  2. […] business who are storing supportive supervision and taxpayer information in these services. Many, including myself, have created about these information insurance issues and this has been an area of concentration […]

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