Google Workspace will re-enable tracking for many users today

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Today is the day that Google’s controversial changes to Google Workspace privacy settings go into effect. For paid Google Workspace users, the company-wide Web and App Activity control will be removed from the admin control panel and split into two different settings. We covered this announcement two months ago, but the new privacy controls rolled out on Tuesday.

Many confusing changes happen. First, administrators no longer have enterprise-wide control over privacy settings. It is now up to each user in an organization to discover and change the settings themselves. Google will not honor your previous privacy settings when moving the controls – organizations that previously opted out of tracking will be re-enabled some tracking, and each user must now opt out individually.

The second change concerns the distribution of settings. The tracking previously covered by “Web & App Activity” is split into two controls; One is still called “Web and App Activity,” and there’s a new setting called “Search History.” The Web & App Activity setting will not be re-enabled, but search history was never turned on technically already existed, it is enabled for each user by default, even if an organization previously disabled this tracking under Web & App Activity. Again, admins can no longer control this setting, requiring every user in an organization to turn off search history for themselves.

You may be wondering what the settings actually do. Web and App Activity is a checkbox that allows Google to track and store almost everything you do in a Google Account — that is, your location, language, IP address, customer information, and text and audio searches in the most Google products. It also allows Google to save any ads you click on or things you buy on an advertiser’s website, as well as a range of device information, such as apps you’ve recently used, contact names you’ve searched for recently, and possibly your own Chrome history and Android device diagnostics.

The new Search History checkbox offers a special tracking carve-out specifically for “the Google Workspace services” i.e. the “work” apps like Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Contacts, Drive, Google Chat and Keep and everything else this includes the Google Workspace Terms of Service. search history does not include Google Search (let that sink in) or Google Maps, YouTube, or anything else that isn’t on the Workspace Terms page.

Google argues that because Workspace is a paid service and the company “never uses your data in core Google Workspace services for advertising,” users will be more comfortable turning on search history for the Workspace apps since the data is supposedly not for Advertising used targeting. For this reason, there is also no corresponding change for free consumer accounts, where activity is always used for ad data.

Dark patterns galore

Google has chosen not to enable the default privacy settings, and it seems every change results in more tracking. If organizations have opted out of tracking and want to go back to what was yesterday, admins need to email all organization members and hope they take the time to turn off the setting. Individual users are likely to be less technically savvy than an organization’s administrator and therefore less willing to tinker with these settings.

Google could have respected the previous “Web & App Activity” settings and set the obviously associated search history settings accordingly. It could have given admins centralized control over the setting instead of leaving it up to each individual user. It could have changed the settings but left them off by default, or presented users with a pop-up and asked them to choose. Instead, the company opted for the “maximum tracking” option.

If you want to turn off the settings, go to the “My Activity” page where you can control “Web & App Activity”. According to Google, the new “Search History” setting is located in the “Other Google Activity” link in the sidebar. If you don’t see “Search history,” your organization hasn’t received the privacy change yet, so try again in a few days.


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