Google Raises Privacy Concerns With Ill-Conceived Sharing Feature

The other day we woke up to find that a story we’d accidentally “shared” on Google Reader was now being automatically broadcast to a wide swath of strangers who were listed in our Gmail contacts and had been “auto- added” to Google Talk . It was startling, but no big deal because we didn’t use the “share” feature on Google Reader and therefore had only to delete the single “United Airlines does something boring that no one actually cares about” AP story that we’d accidentally clicked sometime last year.

For those that had been using Google Reader’s shared feature with the expectation of privacy, the realization that they’d either have to delete every single item they’d ever shared, or delete everyone who they didn’t want to see their shared items from their contact list was less fun. To make matters worse, the feature had been implemented without warning, so for some users it was too late to delete “shared” items that they didn’t want to send to Mom or Aunt Betty.

Reader ALP writes:

Google recently, with no advance notice to users of either GoogleTalk or GoogleReader, made a change in the privacy settings of the “shared items” feature in GoogleReader:

Google Reader makes it easy to find and read items that your friends have shared. If any of your friends on Google Talk are using Reader and sharing items, they’ll automatically show up in the Google Reader sidebar under Friends’ shared items. You can read these items in a combined list, or click the “+” icon to expand the list and see the shared items from each of your friends. Your friends will also be able to see that you’re using Reader. If you’re sharing items, they’ll be able to see those in their Reader sidebars as well.

Previously, I could “share” items with selected friends by sending them the URL of my shared items page. That URL contains a random 20 digit number that gave me privacy by obscurity. Now, my shared items appear automatically on the Reader and iGoogle homepages of any Google users with whom I have ever chatted on Google talk and many people with whom I have emailed in the past, whether I know them well or not. That means that many friends, family, coworkers, and near-strangers now have access to parts of my RSS feeds that I meant to share with only a select group of people. There is no way to remove my shared items from a contact’s GoogleReader feed other than by deleting that contact from my GMail contacts list entirely. Contacts can see both new shared items and all of the items I shared prior to the change.

Users are reporting a number of serious privacy-related problems, including work and personal problems, but Google staff are ignoring the problems, (see this thread in the Google forums:
) calling users who care about their privacy “only a small subset of the people using this feature.” They say that they may consider making changes to the way contacts are handled after the holidays, but for now, users will have to live with the unexpected violations of their privacy. So much for “don’t be evil.”

One user says the feature has actually ruined Christmas and caused a huge family fight:

This is going to sound like hyperbole, but this new feature has actually RUINED CHRISTMAS for my family! I sent a share a few days ago that I thought would only go to a few politically-like-minded friends. I didn’t realize that because I had chatted with him in GChat, it would also go to my brother, who is of a different political persuasion. When he received it, he sent a snide, angry email about it to a large group of our family members. I sent him an email (I’ll admit, not the nicest one I’ve ever sent) asking him not to talk about me behind my back and recommending that he stop reading my feed if the posts were going to make him so angry. He called me a nasty name and told me that if I can’t take a little ribbing, maybe we shouldn’t talk anymore at all, including at Christmas Eve dinner. My whole family has taken sides over this divisive political issue, and several of them are not speaking. I kid you not, this is threatening to break up my family at Christmas.

Google, you can set up whatever features you want and make whatever rules you want to. But you have to give us fair warning so that we can make decisions about how to use your products. You can’t change the rules without telling anyone. People have integrated your products into their everyday lives, so the changes you make have real effects on our lives, including our relationships with the people we contact. You have to keep that in mind when you make these sorts of major decisions

Please, please give me the option to choose who to share with and who not to share with. And tell us in advance before you make changes of this magnitude so that people can alter their behavior before the changes occur.

How awful.

Here’s Google’s response:

All of us on the Reader team are paying attention and are aware of the feedback from this group. However, we do need to balance all these concerns with keeping the feature useful for those who like it and use it. (There aren’t many of those on this thread, granted, but this is only a small subset of the people using this feature.) The incremental changes we’ve been making this week have been aimed at finding the most reasonable compromise.

Let me reiterate: If you’re uncomfortable sharing items, you can unshare everything in a single click. With just a few more clicks, you can move all those items to a new tag, to preserve your organization. After unsharing, any privacy concerns you had about sharing your shared items should be taken care of.

We are aware that friends management is still very basic at this stage. Your Google Talk contact list is taken as an approximation of the set of people you’re interested in communicating with, but you can remove people from that list as necessary if you don’t wish to see their items. The update I mentioned today was intended to help in that, since various folks have expressed confusion about who’s who in their lists.

We do intend to keep iterating and improving this feature, though we’ll necessarily slow down a bit over the holidays. Thanks for your patience, and we do hope you’ll end up enjoying the sharing functionality of Reader.

Happy Holidays to All,

Google Reader Shared Feature Thread


Edit Your Comment

  1. says:

    “but this new feature has actually RUINED CHRISTMAS”

    wow. that’s a jab right at the heart.

  2. savvy999 says:

    Just so they can have a fabulous holiday party, those rich a-holes at Google also bought up all the hotel rooms in Bethlehem, forcing baby Jesus to be born in a barn.

    Nice job, Google.

  3. squikysquiken says:

    Wait, “privacy by obscurity” ? And who expects privacy from a shared feature; once you tell one other person, you’ve told the world. It’s like saying you expect privacy from an email you sent to a few friends. Once it is out, it’s out.

    And Google didn’t ruin that user’s christmas, the user and his brother did because they can’t seem to be civilized (by its own recognition, the reply “wasn’t nice”)

  4. backbroken says:

    I always make sure I uncheck the “I give Google permission to ruin my family’s Christmas” checkbox at the bottom of the end-user agreement.

  5. dotyoureyes says:

    Wait wait wait… I use Google Reader.

    There was a HUGE, screen-blocking announcement when this change was rolled out. The first time I logged into Google Reader, it told me my shared items were now being shared with the world, and if I wanted to undo that, I just had to click once.

    The announcement was really clear about the feature, and what I needed to do to opt out of it.

    All these whiners are people who didn’t bother to read the giant screen-blocking announcement. No sympathy here.

  6. aka Cat says:

    @dotyoureyes: you’re probably right, but I wonder if the announcement might have been adblocked or similar on some browsers?

  7. Amelie says:

    NO! I have to opt-in, not opt-out! I hope google gets major flack for this. Sooner or later they’re going to totally sell out all our information.

  8. crackers says:

    @dotyoureyes: I use Google Reader, too, and never saw that message. I check my Reader every day, so I know I would’ve seen it. All I know is that I suddenly started seeing “shared” items from a random person in my contacts. I was thoroughly confused until I read a little more about what was going on.

    I tend to not use the share feature myself, but was taken aback by suddenly getting listings in my Reader that I wasn’t expecting.

  9. Bay State Darren says:

    or “delete everyone who they didn’t want to see their shared items from their contact list

    You konw, at first I kinda misssed that ending part of the sentence. That seemed at little extreme just to get some privacy on Google.

  10. billhelm says:

    I saw the message too. It was pretty clear about what was aboout to occur.

    That said, I think the bigger problem is that it automaticaly adds friends with somewhat silly logic – if I correspond via email with a work or school colleague that uses gmail, they automatically get added to my gtalk contacts and now my greader friends even if I don’t want them there. That’s more of the problem I have with it.

  11. Sam says:

    Privacy concerns? Ruining Christmas? Alert messages that some people didn’t see? Opt-out programs? I’m getting hints of Facebook Beacon. Pretty weak.

  12. Bloberry says:

    I just logged in to Google Reader for the first time in a few weeks. This message popped up immediately: Your Reader shared items are being made available to your friends from Google Talk. You can see what these friends are sharing; they can see what you are sharing, and that you use Reader. Your friends will appear once they’ve logged into Reader.

  13. Starfury says:

    It seems like Google is no longer “not being Evil”

    I don’t use any of their services other than e-mail…which I use as a junkmail account. Overall the size of the company and the way they’re getting into a lot of areas of the internet scare me.

  14. Moff says:

    It seems as though we can’t be sure everyone saw the message, and it seems to me that a company of Google’s stature and purported level of ethical commitment should have thought more about the consequences and figured out a way to be sure people had to opt in when they first introduced the feature, or even simply publicized the change numerous times over a period of days before introducing it.

    @billhelm: Yeah, I love my Gmail account, but I’ve always been irritated by how it adds contacts. It’s very difficult to sort through my contacts list because of the dozens of names in there of people I’ve emailed once, for work purposes or because I was buying something on craigslist. I thought there was a way to change it, but now that I’m looking I can’t seem to find it in my settings.

  15. Moff says:

    “but this is only a small subset of the people using this feature”

    Good God. Sorry, but that’s the really scary line. If only a few people feel their privacy is compromised, no biggie! The whole point of a credo like “don’t be evil” is that you’re supposed to do your best by everyone. Only worrying about what the (alleged) majority thinks, irrespective of whether the upset minority have legitimate complaints, is basically the, um, definition of evil.

  16. marsneedsrabbits says:


    I don’t think there is a way to do it. It might be a nice option to be able to turn off “auto add”; On the other hand, there have been times when I was very glad to have an address that Gmail added, so I’m totally fine either way. I back up my Gmail address book every week or so to my desktop, & when I do, I manually remove the few addresses that have sneaked in but don’t belong there. If you check periodically and remove them, you’ll never have more than a few.
    I Gmail.

  17. STrRedWolf says:

    Can’t they remove Chat from GMail? I got a seperate Jabber client tied into GChat for that!

  18. iluvhatemail says:

    it sounds like someone is having a cow over something that isn’t a huge issue. I like the sharing feature and it’s very simple to take if private if you’d like. The fact that this person sent the “controversal” info to other members of the same family shows his own ignorance of how private conversations usually are.

    If you don’t like it, please don’t use it or at least don’t ruin it for the rest of us.

  19. Trai_Dep says:

    It’s less Google’s fault for ruining Christmas and the assh*ole brothers’ fault.

    If family hasn’t learn to zip it, grit their teeth and quaff several shots of liquor before appearing on the front porch by now, they should leave the Holidays to the professionals.

  20. Moff says:

    @marsneedsrabbits: That’s the thing — I do like having those addresses in there, just in case. I just wish Google would set up a way to delineate between “contacts” and “friends.” For 99.9% of users, I’d imagine, there’s a distinction between the two. And the problem goes beyond this Reader stuff: a friend of mine uses Goodreads to let people know what books she’s currently into, and she ended up accidentally inviting everyone in her contacts — from her close friends to people she’d recently sent résumés to* — to join.

    Granted, it was her mistake, but it’s kind of ridiculous to have to worry about. Google could easily, it seems, partition off the email addresses of people you’ve only received email from and people you’ve only emailed once yourself, and keep those addresses in a master contact list and your address-line autofill; and then only automatically add addresses to your “official” contact list once you’d exchanged two or more messages in both directions. There’s obviously no way to do it perfectly outside of manual contacts management, but it seems like they could make it easier and reduce the possibility of embarrassing snafus.

    And being able to turn off auto-add is a no-brainer. There’s no reason not to give people the option, as I’m sure there are folks who prefer to manage their contacts entirely manually.

    *The punch line is that one of the guys she’d sent a résumé to, of course, was one of the only people who signed up to be a friend on Goodreads.

  21. iamme99 says:

    @ZOUXOU – NO! I have to opt-in, not opt-out! I hope google gets major flack for this. Sooner or later they’re going to totally sell out all our information.

    Yes, especially now that Google is acquiring the infamous Doubleclick.

    “Don’t be evil” will ALWAYS gets trumped by “make more money” on the backs of our users.

  22. Chris Walters says:

    @iluvhatemail: There is NO way to take it private if you don’t like it. Go into your settings and try to make the “shared” feed private—you’ll see that it’s impossible.

    Your only option (other than abandoning the service) is to never click the “share” button at the bottom of each post. Of course, that button is right between the “Add star” and “Email” and right above the link to open the next entry in your list—almost a perfect location for accidental clicks. If the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that a badly designed interface can and will promote mistakes.

    Google doesn’t have to “ruin” it for people like you who like it. They just have to implement some privacy features and make it opt-in.

  23. Chris Walters says:

    Also: did Google and Facebook go to the same “How to make ad $$$ by screwing over the privacy of the end-user” seminar earlier this year?

  24. Amelie says:

    Is it a coincidence this is happening during the Christmas holidays? Maybe they are counting on people being too busy with their families to complain on the internets.

  25. synergy says:

    Good reason I don’t use Google for anything. I need more control over my accounts and information than that site makes available.

  26. MYarms says:

    Blame it on the big evil corporation.

    Here’s an idea, if you don’t like it don’t use it.

  27. jkaufman101 says:

    Google, like George Bush, has no respect for individual privacy. Google absolutely sucks.

  28. jawacg says:


    You know, you are absolutely right. That’s why I don’t use Google – for anything. Maybe I am a little jaded, but when a for profit company that handles ungodly amounts of information on so many people uses a motto of don’t be evil my bullshit sensor starts going off. Besides, if they are so smart and smooth and everything that they make is the bomb, surely they could fix these problems just like that.

  29. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    Google seems to have a history with this kind of thing. I certainly wouldn’t want my reading list shared with everybody, particularly by default. I stopped using Gmail long ago when I found out that Google would tie all your searches to your Gmail account identity, and that they archived those records indefinitely.

    Like there aren’t enough corporations tracking your identity already. The idea that there’s a huge corporation with a big secret folder detailing what I’ve looked at, read, and searched for on a search engine creeps me out. It’s bad enough that the government probably does that, but at least (hopefully) they’re not going to try to use it for profit.

  30. This kind of crap is the result of a headlong rush to score me-too points as Facebook becomes the new technology media darling while Google’s halo swiftly evaporates. Fearing a vanishing user base as the masses shift toward using social sites like Facebook, digg and other stuff to do their communications and content consumption, Google is going to do their best to leverage their existing positions and become more social.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone who is using any Google product for social purposes. You have a high expectation of sharing when you join a social site like Facebook. No such expectation existed when consumers started using Google’s stuff and now all kinds of crap is happening behind the scenes. It’s disappointing.

    The growing suspicion shown toward Google is well-deserved. A shared login across all Google properties ties a whole hell of a lot of data about your clickstream together. Now as Google scrambles to increase their viability, their users’ data will be used as pawns and that’s going to get awkward for a lot of people.

    Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

  31. theblackdog says:

    *rolls eyes* Look, if you call it “Shared items” isn’t it reasonable to expect it will be shared with the world? Before it became available on your reader contacts, it was a public RSS feed. This isn’t a big change.

  32. DanGarion says:

    Um, this isn’t anything new, they ALREADY HAD shared news.

    I don’t understand why people get their panties all bunched up when the only change was that you can share directly with those on your google talk. The shared items has been there for as long as I can remember on Google Reader.

  33. Moff says:

    @theblackdog & @DanGarion:

    I don’t think you get it. Consider this example:

    You’re gay and from a severely religious family. You get along with them but aren’t ready to come out of the closet. Your family members are in your Google contacts, and you and they both use Google Reader.

    You subscribe to some feeds that clearly indicate, or at least strongly suggest, your sexual orientation. They’re shared, but not with your family members.

    Then one day out of the blue they will be shared with your family members. Best-case scenario: You delete the feed or the family members from your contacts. Totally annoying and you shouldn’t have to do that. Worst-case scenario: You’re one of the people who apparently didn’t get Google’s notification of the service change and now you’re out of the closet, right before you go home for Christmas dinner.

    Um, that, to me, would be a big change.

    That’s not even quite the point, though. These days, one expects a certain level of control over an online service like Google Reader, and that means more than two choices — i.e., (1) not shared with anyone at all or (2) shared with everyone I’ve ever emailed. I mean, when I turn on file sharing on my computer, I don’t expect to share every single one of my files with every person on my network. (Cripes, when I share a bag of Doritos, I don’t expect to share it with everyone I know.) So, no, calling it “shared items” doesn’t make it “reasonable to expect it will be shared with the world.”

  34. says:

    @moff: I don’t think you still quite get it, either. In your scenario your gay Reader user will “subscribe to some feeds that clearly indicate, or at least strongly suggest, your sexual orientation.” Ok, granted. But then in the next sentence you leap to thinking that “they’re shared”.

    Except they’re not. They’re really, really not. Not at all. No items that the user has read have been shared without their consent. Ever. To accidentally share them, your gay Reader user would have had to decide on the following less-probable action: “Hmm, I’m trying to hide some details of my life…maybe I should share them publicly. Like it said on the banner when I look at my shared items in Reader. Publicly. That would keep things very, very hidden indeed. >click<“

    Like others, I think Google should introduce more powerful sharing controls. But the issue is less scary than you’re making it out to be.

  35. theblackdog says:

    @moff: A.Toe.By.Three.O.Clock already pointed out where your argument shoots itself in the foot, but here’s another one.

    If you’re gay and in the closet because of hyper-religious family/friends, you would likely have two google user names, one that your family and friends know about, and one that your family and friends do not know about. Since you wouldn’t be adding those family and friends to the special “gay” profile, you won’t accidentally out yourself to them.

    And again, let me remind you that prior to this change by Google, shared items were a public RSS feed so anyone with a little know-how could have found it long before.

  36. SpdRacer says:

    What was the article that ruined xmas? I don’t use Google Reader, but would like to go back in time and piss off some relatives.