From 1 March 2012, Google went live with a controversial change in its privacy policies that have ruffled a few feathers in Europe - and there may be more of an impact on businesses than first thought.
The new policy allows Google to consolidate more than 60 of its privacy policies into one main document, which means it will be able to aggregate user data across most of its products – and ultimately know more about everyone who uses its services.
While some consumers have tried to get round the new policy by deleting all the data collected on them by Google before the changes took effect, analysts have pointed out that businesses could still be damaged by the changes unless users move to creating separate personas for their work and personal lives.
"There are risks for enterprises whose employees are leaving a trail of information about themselves – and maybe their employers – on social media and search sites," said David Bradshaw, research manager for software and services in Europe at analyst firm IDC.
"Users need to create separate Google identities for work and home use, even if they use completely different services from Google."
The increased use of social media and consumer technology, such as smartphones and tablets, in the business has blurred the distinction between the work and private online identities over the past few years.
Bradshaw believes companies should reinforce the distinction between personal and work personas for reputational and information security reasons.
A firm's reputation may be at risk if their employees' legal online activities – which may be offensive to potential customers – can be traced back to the employer, for example.
Bradshaw added: "Free web services such as search and social media are only provided free because the provider hopes to monetise the data being generated, and the information trail that you as an employee leave is surely different from the trail that you as a private individual leave.
"For some organisations, the lines between personal and professional are deliberately blurred, but for most it's now time to start separating these two worlds once again."
Senior Forrester analyst Anthony Mullen agrees that firms need to encourage employees to have a ring-fenced online work identity, and that this would be easier to manage than trying to control all of an employee's online activity.
"It's folly to get a 360 degree view of the customer and employees. There are too many touch points not under their [the employer's] control. It means we need to have multiple personas. For example, I'd look to ring-fence my gaming performance and my work identity," he said.
Mullen said that it is unlikely that Google, in its aggregation of user data, is currently able to spot and match up separate personas that its users create on the site. But he did not rule out the possibility in the future, which would make it difficult for workers to keep their online identities completely separate.
"Increasingly, they will want to know there's a real person behind it. At the moment, Google aren't going to be looking for overlaps in identities. But with Google+ and increased scale of tools usage, they will be able to spot the two personas," he warned.
Simon Halberstam, head of internet law at Kingsley Napley, is unsurprised by this. Contrary to the analysts' recommendations, he thinks it would be almost impossible to create separate personas online.
"It's a Faustian pact. People think they're getting stuff for free, but people are paying for it with the price of privacy.
"With search functions, it's not going to be that easy [to have separate online personas]. And it's others talking about you [online], not just you," Halberstam said.
"It's almost impossible to manage your reputation online, and it is going to get more and more difficult. I don't think any privacy controls [between your personal and work identities] are going to be effective. The best way to manage your reputation online is to stay offline."
While Google's privacy changes certainly present challenges to businesses, Mullen believes that they have helped to kick-start a more "mature" debate about transparency and data ownership.
He said that, for instance, Google could be a "model" for how businesses can comply with the new EU Cookies Directive, which demands that UK organisations running websites in the UK to get consent from visitors to their websites in order to store cookies on users' computers.
"Google as a model for transparency is excellent. The Google dashboard is the best in the industry. Google shows you everything they hold about you on the dashboard [which Microsoft and Facebook don't do]. You are also allowed to configure [settings] – others don't. Corporations would do well to emulate the dashboard they have on their customers," Mullen said.
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