Google Plus, Circles, your data

I just saw a tweet by :
“Tim Berners-Lee: we, not companies, should own the data about us”, pointing to this article.
http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/oct/08/sir-tim-berners-lee-speaks-out-on-data-ownership

Last night I found a draft of a post that was published on the dark side of the blogosphere, inside a company firewall, dated 2011. Sadly, I didn’t invent The Internet, so no-one heeded my warning 🙂 I hope TB-L has more luck.

I’ve spent so much time reverse-engineering business requirements from poorly implemented IT systems so they can be re-written properly, that I think it’s become an illness. I’ve spent my evening puzzling out how Google+ Circles work because to quote NCIS’ Gibbs, “my gut tells me” that something is wrong.

Google’s Circles are probably squares really. Imagine a matrix where each column represents one of the “People in your circles” and each row represents “one of your circles”. There might be a 1 for each person in the circle and a 0 for everyone who isn’t. In our mental model, the circles are a Venn diagram and can intersect or contain other circles but the matrix doesn’t need to know about that.

What do the Circles represent? Google (at this point) don’t care. They are our personal classifications of other people, in as many ways as we wish to invent. It might be by their interests, location, language, friendship group etc.

For outgoing messages Circles allow us to specify foreach message, which classification of people we think should receive it. We might do this to exclude people we don’t think will be interested or who we do not wish to see the message. A message can be imagined to break free from our personal Circle defences through toward everyone who has at least one match to the selected Circles (a logical OR of all the selected rows.) Mechanisms that mix up classification of information with security have always come back to bite me, so this is my first concern.

For incoming messages, Circles act as filters, removing information that we do not wish to see, according to our current Circle selection. Therefore, once a message has escaped from our own Circles, it also has to be accepted into the Circles of each target person before each of them will  see it. Here the problem is that some of my friends are in intersecting circles. If one of my friends is in my ‘computers’ circle but also writes about ‘football’ then I have to decide whether to exclude that person from the group or dread match-nights. There ought to be a simple solution to this: ask the friend to take me out of his/her ‘football’ circle and only send football messages to that circle, but I have no idea if there is such a circle because their Circles are private. Similarly I may not be in his computers ‘Circle’, so communication on a topic of mutual interest could be accidentally one-way.

‘Circle taxonomies’ need to be public, preferably shareable in some way. We are building a map of all human relationships and we can only see our piece of the jigsaw. Only Google can see the whole picture. They can’t fix these issues without breaking Goggle’s business model. We’ve been given what is good for Google not good for us. This is Version 0.1. Must try harder.

Later, I discovered that Google appeared to have lifted the concepts behind Circles from the ‘aspects’ (of your life) feature of the open-source social network Diaspora*, which had tried much harder to respect personal privacy, as a reaction to FaceBook’s abuse of private information.

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2 thoughts on “Google Plus, Circles, your data

  1. I think that it is interesting that Google as a company holds very much information about more or less everything (and everyone) on the internet. Not only by providing a search function – which does work well in my opinion – but also services around it such as Gmail, Youtube, G+ and trough sites using Google Analytics. The question that arises in me, is how does this impact me and my own integrity?

    I guess that, what I like to say is, that the Circles probably are more of cubes. What I mean by that is that they have the timestamps and location where its users are, so they may do queries about seasonal behavior and/or what is popular in different regions. Google can create vary detailed analyses of every user of their services. To anonymize one self I think that you should start using VPN, TOR, encryption (e.g. PGP for mail) and start to think about the behavior when accessing the internet. It would be either that or not using an internet-connected device at all.

    I am sorry if I started to drift away in my comment, but this post got me really thinking.

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