buzz off

6 Ways Google Buzz’s Terrible Privacy Constraints Can Screw the Queers

Debuting last week, Google Buzz is the search giant’s new product competing with Twitter and Facebook. With tens of millions of Gmail accounts, Google harnessed its massive user base to create its own real-time feed of status updates, photo uploads, and link shares. It also completely violated Gmail users’ privacy. By automatically enrolling them in Buzz, Google turned what you thought were your personal communications and relationships into a bulletin board for all the world wide web to see. Some 72 hours into their experiment, Google finally offered a way to put the kibosh on unintended oversharing. But for many, it was too late.

Yes, there was the story about how Buzz exposed a woman’s home address and workplace to her abusive ex, but there will be hundreds more unreported stories about how Buzz screwed over its users by not placing stricter privacy controls on the system. More unfortunate, however, is many Gmail users don’t even understand how Buzz works (including us, until we researched this post), and may not actually know just how much of their personal data was revealed. So while you go about figuring out how to disable Buzz’s default data stream (hint: log on to Gmail, scroll to bottom, click “turn off Buzz”), allow us to share a few gay-specific ways Buzz fucked you over.

Buzz just outed you. Are you a teen who frequently emails with a counselor at a LGBT youth group? Are you a closeted adult who emails with your town’s well-known gays? Because Buzz forces you into auto-following your most frequent contacts, anyone who views your Buzz stream will see that the people you’re communicating with the most are big homos. So much for that “straight masc jock” image you were going for.

Your web-based cheating was just exposed. Yup, heteros have to deal with this one too, but given The Gays’ proclivity to find sex online, your Gmail chats and emails with your web hookups just became part of the public’s peek into your private life, for the same reason as above. Though if you’re using the same Gmail account for emailing your partner and your trick, you probably deserved this.

Your anonymous identity was just revealed. Even if your Gmail username isn’t something readily identifiable (i.e. “AFGuy1969”), if you’re using the same account to cruise the web for sex play as well as send out resumes, your worlds just collided in your Buzz stream, and anyone who sees it can check out your followers, and who’s following you. This includes Manhunt johns and potential employers.

Your mom just learned about your interest in gender reassignment surgery. Because Buzz auto-links your Google Reader account, any links to blogs or websites you’ve favorited or shared with friends via the RSS product just went public. Including links to surgeons in the area and hormone therapy treatments.

Your party pics are now a public exhibit. By linking Buzz to your web albums on Picasa (another Google unit), your photo uploads are now part of your stream. If you thought it was bad that a future boss might see you’re being followed by seven guys with “HotBttm” in their screennames, imagine how much worse things will get when your father accidentally clicks the “Buzz” tab in his Gmail and sees you getting handsy on the dance floor with his boss.

Your stalkers just found you. Whether you have a casual admirer that you’re trying to avoid or, like the woman above, a serious fucktard of an abusive ex, Buzz just exposed the link to the homepage of your new favorite restaurant. You know, the one you just updated your Gmail status with so you can meet your college friends for happy hour? Bring pepper spray.

BONUS UPDATE: The government just identified you as a gay activist in a country where homosexuality is illegal. When Malawian officials are arresting civilians for merely putting up pro-gay posters, you can imagine what would happen to gay activists in unfriendly countries when their identities are suddenly shared — as are their entire network of contacts. Foreign Policy points us to this other Buzz-worthy fiasco: When authoritarian governments suddenly have access to all of your private networking tools that you assumed were kept from their prying eyes. If you’re emailing with Western contacts, or even your neighborhood activists, you’ve got a whole new set of problems.

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  • scott ny'er

    queerty annoys me a lot. But this was a good summary of how Google’s buzz can be detrimental.

    i just use Gmail to mail. So, I don’t think it will affect me in any manner. But, it’s still good to know.

  • j

    I don’t get it, does this mean people can read all my e-mails? I don’t use my gmail often but I just went and turned off buzz and deleted all my e-mails. Whatever this is it sounds like a huge abuse of privacy.

  • terrwill

    It seems like its finally 1984……………

  • Qjersey

    Are people really still stupid enough to use one email for everything? Most guys I know have a separate email just for hooky and nooky. So unless you’ve filled out your profile with your real name…it really isn’t a big deal. In fact if you have one gmail just for hooking up…and you list your buzz posts as private…buzz could be like facebook merged with manhunt, lol.

    “are you horny now?” LOL

  • 1EqualityUSA

    #2, We just turned off Buzz and our emails are still intact. Weird story, Queerty. Thanks for talking about it.

  • Gorbeh

    I HATE BUZZ!!! Google is pissing me off!!! All these crap features and the changes to Facebook!!! :(

  • McShane

    Unfortunately but very accurately America has sold out on civil rights all around. Obama has done very little to undo the shameful demolition of hiuman rights started by Bush. The ACLU rated him as having made almost no changes to what Bush started. We have allowed it to happen. Guantanamo still sits; no habeas corpus , trails or anything else. The Patriot act 2006 still allowass for the pPres to declare martial law. Coorporations can determine elections.
    Your freedom is good as gone now.

  • Devon

    God help us all the day Google becomes self aware.

  • B

    No. 2 · j “I don’t get it, does this mean people can read all my e-mails?”

    … Almost certainly not. What Google actually seems to have done is to set a user up with people he can ‘follow’ based on email that user has sent or received. It’s something the user could do manually given the email he/she already has a list of those email addresses.

    What’s less clear is if others can see who your “friends” are and whether the privacy controls regarding that are easily understood or available at all.

    I shut ‘buzz’ off as well – if they want me to use it, they’ll have to tell me how it works, specifically what a particular setting actually does. I never set up a profile anyway, so I’m not sure what would be displayed, and didn’t bother to check.

    If any company divulges any personal information about me such as the people I send email to, that will trigger a lawsuit, and California is supposed to have very strict privacy laws.

  • Ryan

    As you already mentioned, Google has already fixed the majority of concerns here. Not only are all of the listed issues currently fixable with your privacy settings, but some of the issues were never problems to begin with.

    Buzz has never shared your emails or your chats; I’m not sure where you got that idea. And your Google Reader privacy settings were always kept the same in Buzz, so the only way your mother could find out about your interests in sex-change operations after Buzz is if she could already find out about them before.

    Half of the problems listed here are the exact same problems you would have in Facebook or Twitter, in fact, the way Facebook lets your friends tag you in their party photos of you, allows your employer to look at them before you get a chance to untag yourself.

    It’s disappointing to see you guys post a scare article like this with such baseless information

  • Dionte

    The internet and privacy don’t mingle at parties.

  • Tommy

    Maybe they just did a quick change since this article came out, but there IS an option to hide who you are auto-following from your google profile. I understand we aren’t all as tech savvy as we’re made out to be, but it’s in the settings. plus you can unfollow anyone you want, so if you wound up being linked to someone you’d rather keep a private contact, all you have to do is delete them from your buzz and they’ll stay in your address book.

  • Antonio

    Thanks for the info. Does it matter if Google fixed bugs? Some folks got burned.

  • Klarth

    @no.12 The issue is that it was auto set up without our consent.

    I didn’t even know Buzz existed until it just showed up in my GMail interface one day. So even if I knew to adjust the settings, the damage could have been done.

    My mother, who knows I’m gay, but doesn’t want details, and friends who don’t all know, or only know so much, could see the porn feeds I might have starred or shared with gay contacts, and so on.

    The service said she and the others had requested to connect to me that way. I know for a fact mom didn’t b/c she can barely get around the internet as it is. I still don’t think she even knows what Buzz is. She hasn’t asked me yet. But basically, as the article stated, Google just set this up automatically based on other Google users in our contact lists, with no regard to privacy.

    They could at least have left the contact list empty and let us choose who to add.

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