Google Buzz Alarms a Psychotherapist

Wake up and smell the smoke

Last Wednesday, I logged into Gmail to discover that I had a new little Buzz icon. When I clicked on it, I discovered what everyone was tweeting about: I was auto-following a number of people. Some I knew and some I didn’t really know at all. We just happened to be active participants on shared email lists, but we’d never met.  I’d heard the murmurs about Google Buzz, so I knew something was brewing. But what arrived wasn’t what I expected. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the invasive experience of having Google decide for me who I should be following based upon the frequency of our email exchanges. And this was just on my personal email account.

Warning bells

As I slowly woke up, it occurred to me that I should check my professional practice email account. Here is where the horror hit. I discovered that a handful of friends and family were following me, and so were a couple of clients. I also saw that I was also auto-following a client. As I looked through my list of followers, Gmail asked, did I want to follow them back? No! No! NO! NO! I did not. I did not want us linked at all. And why hadn’t I been asked or alerted before this morning, by the way?

At this point, it hadn’t even occurred to me that my public profile on Google which advertises my practice was also showing the lists of who was following me and who I was following back. Yes, this had already become public information on my profile.

Google Buzz and Psychotherapy

This is problematic for a mental health professional for a number of reasons.

1. A number of my clients prefer email as their primary way of contacting me. If clients show up on my follow list (or I show up on theirs), that is a big breach of their privacy without any warning.

2. I deserve some privacy too. I don’t necessarily want clients or business contacts to know who else I regularly exchange email with, whether those people are clients, friends, or colleagues.

3. It was unclear whether people had chosen to manually add and follow me or whether Google had decided for them that they should be auto-following me. This bit of information can be of particular importance in the therapy relationship. Some may have assumed I followed them and were politely following me back. Some may have added me and felt rejected when I blocked them. Some may not have even known we were following one another in the first place. But since it was done automatically, without any prior notification, both parties in the relationship were left wondering but I still felt I had to act immediately to clean up the potential privacy mess.

I wasn’t the only person who was upset about this. I got emails from several other therapists who were distressed to find themselves following clients. Over the next couple of days, articles started to emerge that were addressing the privacy flaws.

I turned Buzz off immediately. But I then discovered that I had to go back in and manually block the folks I’d been following as well and remove the links to our names if I did not want them showing up on my public profile.

But this was a wake up call for me.

Confidentiality

My email signature for my private practice has always included a warning about the limitations of email in regard to privacy. Generally, clients do not send me emails about anything more than appointment confirmations or requests to reschedule. But sometimes, people choose email as the first point of contact in reaching out to me for my services. In these cases, I have found that they often share a lot more personal information. I had been well aware that gmail was not the most secure service, but I figured with the limited amount of emailing that I do with patients, it was a low risk endeavor. That was before Google decided to turn email into a social network. Obviously, the time has come for me to address this security problem in my professional practice.

My response has been to completely move my email to hushmail for all interactions with anyone with whom I have a confidential relationship. I have been pleased to discover that I can set up hushmail to forward new mail notifications to other email addresses without including the name of the sender in the alert. I have this setting selected so that client names are not being forwarded to other email accounts.Please note that as of this writing, there has been an apology from Google and a number of privacy updates to correct the Google Buzz problems. Here is Google’s official reply.

Steps for therapists

Still, if you are a therapist who has been unaware of the privacy issues related to Google Buzz, here are some steps you should consider taking:

1. Go into your Gmail settings and select “Disable Buzz.” You can also directly access this setting by selecting “Turn Off Buzz,” at the very bottom of your Gmail Inbox. (Click on photo for larger version.)

2. Let me be a warning to you. Now is the time to move your private practice email to a more secure service. Hushmail was my choice. But other options include ciphersend. Both sites also offer the option to put secure forms on your website, if you choose to do so. I recommend doing this for anyone who uses email as a way of communicating with clients, even if you’re not on gmail.

3. Remember that it is not enough to switch emails. Encourage your clients to delete your gmail address from their contact list and do the same for any clients with whom you have exchanged email in order to avoid future exposure or crossover on sites.
4. If you have mail from these sites forwarded to other email accounts, make sure you have opted not to have the email sender’s name included in the forward.
5. Update your web presence and advertisements to redirect to the new email address.
6. Be aware that if you use Google Reader, you may continue to get requests to share and follow items there.

7. Of course, if you use PayPal or have a presence on other sites like Psychology Today on which clients may contact you, switch the email address to your new secure email.

Other resources

For some more Gmail privacy tips, lifehacker has a good post Top 10 Google Settings You Should Know About. Here is another informative post 3 Things You Should Know Before Using (Or Continuing to Use) Google Buzz.

Update: November 2, 2010

Today, Google has notified users of a class action settlement in the lawsuit regarding Google Buzz. An excerpt from their email:

The settlement acknowledges that we quickly changed the service to address users’ concerns. In addition, Google has committed $8.5 million to an independent fund, most of which will support organizations promoting privacy education and policy on the web. We will also do more to educate people about privacy controls specific to Buzz. The more people know about privacy online, the better their online experience will be.

Just to be clear, this is not a settlement in which people who use Gmail can file to receive compensation. Everyone in the U.S. who uses Gmail is included in the settlement, unless you personally decide to opt out before December 6, 2010. The Court will consider final approval of the agreement on January 31, 2011. This email is a summary of the settlement, and more detailed information and instructions approved by the court, including instructions about how to opt out, object, or comment, are available at http://www.BuzzClassAction.com

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© 2010 Keely Kolmes, Psy.D.

To cite this page: Kolmes, K. (2010) Email tips for clinicians. Retrieved month/day/year from http://drkkolmes.com/2010/02/18/google-buzz-alarms-therapists/.

4 Responses to “Google Buzz Alarms a Psychotherapist”

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by drkkolmes: Google Buzz Alarms a Psychotherapist http://bit.ly/9G2Ksw My post on the privacy breach & my response. #psychotherapy #privacy…

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