IDC: Comment: From Today, Google Knows You're a Dog

London - 2 March 2012

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" was the caption on a famous cartoon by Peter Steiner published in The New Yorker in 1993. It encapsulated a belief that persists to this day — that you can hide your true identity on the Internet. However, it is increasingly harder for anyone to hide their identity. We all give up data about ourselves of varying degrees of sensitivity in return for using "free" services. Few people realize just how much data that they have given up — whether knowingly by supplying it when asked, or unknowingly by having their activity tracked by the services they use.

This issue is coming to a head in Europe, with Google in a dispute with European legislators over the new terms and conditions, which apply from March 1. What essentially Google has done is to tidy up the privacy policies across its multiple services. However, Google has done this to enable the aggregating of information about its users across the many different services that it runs. As a result, it will know more about each of us.

How does this affect the enterprise? There are risks here for enterprises whose employees are leaving a trail of information about themselves — and maybe their employers — on social media and search sites. The main impact of what Google is doing, once its significance is realized, will be to force the separation of "work me" from "private me," a differentiation that became blurred in recent years with the spread of consumer technology and social media in the workplace. Users need to create separate Google identities for work and home use, even if they use completely different services from Google.

This is partly about reputational risk to the enterprise, if its employees' online activities — which might be perfectly legal but offensive or annoying to some potential clients — are easily identifiable and traceable to their employer. It is also partly about basic information security. Free Web services such as search and social media are only provided free because the provider hopes to monetize 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 will leave. For some organizations, the lines between personal and professional are deliberately blurred, but for most it's now time to start separating these two worlds once again.

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