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2/12/2010
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Google Buzz Gets Privacy Patch

Responding to complaints, the company has enhanced the privacy options for Buzz users.

Google on Thursday declared Buzz a success while simultaneously announcing several changes to enhance the privacy of Buzz users amid a growing chorus of complaints.

Tens of millions of people have experimented with Buzz, the company said, resulting in over 9 million posts and comments. It also said that it was seeing 200 Buzz posts per minute coming in from mobile phones.

That's a drop in the bucket compared to the 135.5 billion spam messages per day that McAfee reported as an average in 2009, but Buzz is just getting started. Whether Buzz has a future may depend on how it addresses user privacy concerns, which have already led some users to disable the service.

Buzz is Google's second attempt to reinvent e-mail, its first being Google Wave, the promising but unreleased marriage of e-mail, instant messaging and collaboration.

Gmail users who enable Buzz can share photos, videos and status updates with a ready-made social network, their Gmail contacts. The trouble is that Buzz's proclivity to share often defies user expectations by making information like e-mail addresses, contact names, and social connections publicly accessible.

Facebook has been wrestling with privacy problems of this sort for years and now Google has stepped into the ring. The problem for Google, or any social network, is that people have differing privacy expectations and what one user accepts another may find invasive. Thus any default setting that isn't completely private is bound to upset some users. Privacy also has a different impact on different people. For some, a breach of privacy may mean embarrassment; for others, it can mean physical harm or legal jeopardy.

Some of those complaining online about Buzz have claimed that the service has exposed their contact information to people who have threatened them or outed the confidential sources of journalists.

On Thursday, Todd Jackson, product manager for Buzz, acknowledged that Google had heard from concerned users who believed their contacts were being made public without their knowledge and who were upset that they had too little control over who could follow them.

Jackson said that in response to feedback, Google has made the option to not display follower information on public profiles more visible. The company has also made it possible to block followers who have not created a Google Profile and has made information about followers more clear.

While this may restore user trust in Buzz for some, Mike Geide, a senior security researcher with Zscaler who described in a blog post how Buzz could be misused by spammers, says that the service still could be misused. "These improvements could help to prevent spammers from following users who limit their ability to be followed -- in other words, it is still up to users to policy their profile," he said in an e-mail. "[But] E-mail addresses are still visible for those users that your Gmail account has corresponded with, so the e-mail validation problem still exists for Buzz."

Google maintains that its spam detection systems would be likely foil such spamming efforts.

"Google works hard to fight spam, and in fact, the anti-spam technology in Gmail is one of the key reasons why people choose to use Gmail in the first place," a company spokesperson said in an e-mail. "Similarly, we are focused on eliminating spam from Google Buzz as much as possible. A random number is associated with the URL of your public Google Profile by default for extra privacy, as opposed to a username. Additionally, our spam-fighting algorithms help detect and stop the types of automated harvesting methods that are discussed theoretically in the [Zscaler] report. We have not seen any evidence of such methods being used against Gmail users through Google Buzz."

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