Social networking brings with it its own set of privacy and security challenges. With Google making its own foray into the space with the launch of Google Buzz, security experts say users will have to find the right balance between privacy and openness.
Like Facebook, Buzz allows users to post updates, videos and photos. Buzz will automatically push updates to Gmail users from fellow users with whom they exchange e-mail and engage in chat sessions. In addition, Picasa Web public albums, Google Chat status messages and items shared via Google Reader will appear as posts in Buzz.
“We designed Buzz to make it easy to connect with other people and have conversations about the things that interest you,” a Google spokesperson said. “That said, we understand some users may not want to share their posts with others, so we’ve made it easy for users to change and control their personal settings.”
Gmail users can follow people whose Buzz posts they choose to see, and Buzz recommends posts from others as well that the user can choose to ignore. Users can opt out of displaying the full list of people following them and whom they are following.
However, the default setting is “public,” meaning Buzz users will find themselves initially in the same condition as Facebook users did when the social networking site updated its privacy settings two months ago. In the public setting, posts will be available to all users of Google Buzz as well as the poster’s searchable Google profile. The user’s activity on connected sites such as Picasa Web Albums or Twitter can be shared in Google Buzz as well.
“That’s always the key point on any social networking site-people have available to them the means to protect their privacy but often don’t,” said Augie Ray, an analyst with Forrester Research.
“Another area of concern may be the way Google’s mobile app allows people to give permission to automatically report their location,” he said. “That’s the sort of ‘set it once then forget it’ setting that can catch the casual user unaware.”
If a user chooses to view “nearby” posts, the person’s location will be collected by Google. Location information will also be collected if a user creates a post that shares his or her location. However, users can also choose to exclude their location from all mobile posts or on a post-by-post basis.
Just how users will react to Google’s approach to privacy remains to be seen.
“I think it will find its niche, and those that enjoy Google’s services will be receptive to its controls,” said Sean Sullivan, security adviser for North American Labs at F-Secure. “I use Google Reader and currently ‘share’ items with colleagues. It works very well for this. I don’t think it will generate a backlash, I’ll just turn it off like I do many of the other features included in Gmail, and I’m sure many others will as well.”