Google Workspace to take away privacy control from admins, re-enable tracking | GeekComparison

The word

Beginning March 29, Google will change the infamous “Web & App Activity” controls for paid Google Workspace users. That feature is now split into two settings, one still called “Web & App Activity” and another called “Search History.” The big news is that Google is taking advantage of these split settings to re-enable some tracking features, even if users have previously opted out.

Google has started emailing Workspace administrators about the change (thanks, Hacker News), and a support page gives some details about what’s going on. Both the email and support pages are incredibly confusing — even Google’s own employees have trouble parsing Google’s privacy controls — but we’ll try to shed some light on the situation.

The support page begins with “As of March 29, 2022, the Web & App Activity Admin Console setting will disappear.” “Web & App Activity” is one of Google’s two main privacy settings (along with “Location History”) that records everything you do on your Google account. You may remember these settings from several lawsuits about how confusing and poorly labeled they were. Leaving these settings on will make features like auto-complete work better, but it also means Google can keep all your activity.

Note that this line says the Admin control the Web & App Activity setting disappears, not the entire setting itself. Google says the Web & App Activity feature can no longer be centrally managed by your administrator. The gist of those previous privacy lawsuits was that having privacy settings bizarrely spread over two switches was unnecessarily confusing. Now, with Search History, privacy settings are spread over three toggles.

Workspace users will soon have to dive into the
enlarge Workspace users will soon have to dive into the “my account” settings themselves to manage privacy settings.

Ron Amadeo

Trying to describe the difference between the two changed settings, Google says, “Google Workspace search history collects search data for Google Workspace products such as Gmail and Google Drive. Web and App Activity previously collected searches for all Google services. Now it collects it only searches for additional Google services.”

The terms “Google Workspace Products” and “Additional Google Services” are key to understanding that description. Basically, Google splits the data previously captured by “Web & App Activity” into two settings. “Search History” only includes apps that are part of the “Google Workspace” product family. There’s a full list of those services here, but they’re actually Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Contacts, Drive, Google Chat, and Keep — the business apps — and not Google Maps, Google Search, YouTube and other products that do not have a strong business use case. So for paying Workspace users, Search History now covers usage data for Workspace stuff, while Web & App Activity covers any other Google product not specifically mentioned in the Workspace terms.

Google’s rationale for this change is that because Workspace apps are paid for, “Google will never use your data in Google Workspace’s core services for advertising,” the company said. So basically the new ‘Search History’ setting could be called ‘Save data not used for advertising’. Meanwhile, the “Web & App Activity” setting would save data that will are used for advertising.” Google hopes this distinction – if anyone can understand it – will lead more privacy-conscious people to leave the Search history setting on.

With regard to the promise not to use data from “Core Workspace services”, Google’s statement does not refer to Google Search (it is not a core Workspace app), which is the primary vector for Google ads and data for Google ads . That’s right: Google’s “Search History” setting doesn’t affect Google’s search history.

I’m struggling to give Google the benefit of the doubt here, as the end result of all these changes just happens to be “more user tracking.” The org-wide control for Web & App Activity leaves the admin dashboard and the toggle for that control is now up to each individual user. Google would probably argue that the Web & App Activity toggle doesn’t belong in the admin dashboard, as it no longer specifically affects “Workspace” products. But we’re still talking about a Workspace account, and if you leave the setup to less tech-savvy users, fewer of them will find and understand the account.

The new Search History setting is also not in the admin dashboard. Google leaves this up to users and takes the incredible step of enabling data retention even for users who have previously opted out of the tracking that covers it. Any individual user who has already indicated that they do not want this will have to look up the setting again. Admins who don’t want this will have to chase each individual user to disable it.

There’s already widespread confusion in the Hacker News thread and other places about these changes, and Google’s communication on the email and support page isn’t nearly as clear as it should be. To quote one of the Googlers cited in Arizona’s location history lawsuit, Google’s settings and communications feel like they’re “designed to make things possible, yet hard enough that people don’t find out.”

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