Search Results, Email & Privacy

August 21st, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Your own email account can influence your search results. Should you be concerned?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Last week, Google began testing a new feature that merges its popular search engine with a user’s Gmail inbox, presenting search results culled from your personal email alongside regular search results. So, if you were to search “my flight,” the feature could show your individual air travel itinerary, as imported from Gmail. Something similar might happen when searching for a restaurant reservation or concert tickets.

According to the Associated Press, the new feature is part of Google’s push to make finding information more personally relevant. Although it is still the most-used search engine, Google “remains worried about the threat posed by social networking services such as Facebook, Inc. As social networks have made it easier to share information online, the Web is starting to revolve more around people,” as opposed to keywords and links.

But should we be worried about our privacy? In an article from PCWorld, Dan Olds, analyst for the Gabriel Consulting Group, insisted that there was no additional security risk for the feature. Also, because each user must “opt-in” in order to use the revised search functionality and also be logged into their Google account for it to work at all, there’s no need to worry that somebody could be reading your emails while searching the Web.

However, as Jeremiah Grossman, Chief Technology Officer for WhiteHat Security, tells PCWorld, if you think any of your information on Google is private, maybe you should think again: “Any data stored in the cloud, which includes online services like Gmail, should be considered public. With the exception of paid-for services like Good Apps, users are not customers and can only expect a limited amount of security and privacy.”

Indeed, it wasn’t long ago that Google ran afoul of personal privacy advocates when it used the personal contact information of its account-holders to build its Buzz social network and caused users to unintentionally expose personal data. The Federal Trade Commission ultimately required Google to improve its privacy controls and undergo privacy audits for the next 20 years.

Would you opt in to the new feature, or does it constitute an invasion of privacy? Weigh in here.