Introduction to Social Media Investigation: A Hands-on Approach, 1st Edition (2015)
Chapter 13. Google +
Google Plus has been Google's most successful rival to Facebook. It focused on the importance of privacy from the start, important both because of the history with Buzz and because Facebook was actively criticized for its privacy issues at the time. Google Plus was, in part, promoted as a privacy-respecting alternative. This chapter presents an overview of the different types of information people share on the site and how to find those people.
Introduction: Before Google +
Google + (pronounced, and sometimes written, as “Google Plus”) is Google's online social networking platform. It is similar to Facebook in many ways.
Before we get into the details of Google +, it is interesting to look at Google's history of social networking platforms.
One of Google's earliest ventures into social networking was with a platform called Orkut. Launched in 2004, it was similar to many social networks at the time, including Myspace. It became quite popular, especially in India and Brazil. However, it failed to keep up with Facebook in the US market.
To compete in the growing social networking space, Google launched Google Buzz in 2010. The launch is almost universally agreed to have been a disaster because of major privacy issues. Google automatically created a Google Buzz account for everyone who used Gmail, Google's email system. They opted all these users in, turned on their accounts, and publicly listed the names of the people each person corresponded with most frequently in Gmail. Thus, without any action by a user, Google shared all this information with the world. The privacy implications of this became clear quickly.
Business Insider lists a few troubling possible scenarios.1 A husband's profile shows that he has had a lot of contact with an ex. A boss sees that a competitor is a top contact of his employee. What about the case where journalists are emailing confidential, anonymous sources? Those sources could be revealed. Physicians and therapists who used Gmail to correspond with their patients would have their patients' identities revealed as well—a legal violation and a privacy violation.
One case where this had implications was from a woman who had a serious need to keep her information private. She wrote the following about her problems2:
I use my private Gmail account to email my boyfriend and my mother. There's a BIG drop-off between them and my other “most frequent” contacts.
You know who my third most frequent contact is? My abusive ex-husband.
Which is why it's SO EXCITING, Google, that you AUTOMATICALLY allowed all my most frequent contacts access to my Reader, including all the comments I've made on Reader items, usually shared with my boyfriend, who I had NO REASON to hide my current location or workplace from, and never did.
My other most frequent contacts? Other friends of [boyfriend] Flint's.
Oh, also, people who email my ANONYMOUS blog account, which gets forwarded to my personal account. They are frequent contacts as well. Most of them, they are nice people. Some of them are probably nice but a little unbalanced and scary. A minority of them—but the minority that emails me the most, thus becoming FREQUENT—are psychotic men who think I deserve to be raped because I keep a blog about how I do not deserve to be raped, and this apparently causes the Hulk rage.
Google eventually corrected many of these issues, but in a sense, the damage was done. The public outcry at the launch of the site and discussion of major privacy flaws led to users having low trust in the site. It was shut down after less than two years.
Description of the Site
The Release of Google +
Google + came next and has been Google's most successful rival to Facebook. It focused on the importance of privacy from the start, important both because of the history with Buzz and because Facebook was actively criticized for its privacy issues at the time. Google + was, in part, promoted as a privacy-respecting alternative.
Google + has roughly 550 million active users, which makes it extremely popular, but with less than half of Facebook's usage. Many more people could use Google +, since anyone with a Google account—used for Gmail, Search, and even YouTube—can instantly set up an account on Google +. Indeed, Google is working to make Google + a more engrained part of their other experiences, linking Google + accounts to YouTube, for example.
Aside from its role in other Google products, there are many features of the Google + site itself. Its functionality is similar to Facebook's in many ways.
Users can post status updates. They can be text-only or they can have pictures, videos, links, or events created within Google +. Figure 13.1 shows a sample status update being created.
FIGURE 13.1 Posting a status update on Google +.
Also shown in Figure 13.1 is the “To:” feature of the Google + status update. This is essentially the privacy level for a post; it indicates who can view the post within Google +. Users may also share photos and links from external sites through a Google “g+” button. Clicking this brings up a post window, like that shown in Figure 13.1, so users don't have to worry about saving or copying information to upload it through the Google interface.
The current setting shown in Figure 13.1 is for a public post, visible to anyone. However, the pull-down menu shows a number of other options. These are based on the idea of “circles,” which is part of the core of Google +.
Before getting into the details of circles, it is important to note one major difference between Google + and Facebook. On Facebook, friendships are mutual. If a person adds “Bob” as a friend, Bob must approve that friendship to create the relationship. On Google +, this is not the case. Google + uses more of a Twitter model where users follow one another. Those relationships do not have to be mutual nor approved. Thus, users can follow anyone they like. Those people may follow back but they do not have to.
When users follow someone, they add them to a circle. A circle is basically just a list of people. Users can create as many circles as they like. Google offers premade circles for “Friends,” “Family,” and “Acquaintances,” but a circle with any name can be created. When a user follows someone, they can add them to one or more circles. Figure 13.2 shows the menu that appears for adding someone to a circle, which includes the option to create a new circle.
FIGURE 13.2 The menu for adding someone to a circle.
When posting, as shown in Figure 13.1, a user can choose to share his update with people in any single circle or from multiple circles. When they share, anyone in those circles has permission see the content—even if they are not following the user.
The Google + home page shows updates from all of a person's circles by default. Figure 13.3 shows Malcom's home page. Across the top of the page is a menu that allows the user to choose different circles. The three default circles—“Friends,” “Family,” and “Acquaintances”—have their own tabs, and additional circles are shown under “More.”
FIGURE 13.3 Malcom's Google + home page. Note the menu across the top with different circles listed.
When a user makes a post, it will show up on the home page, or in the circle pages, for anyone who has followed him. If a user creates a post and shares it with people who have not followed him (e.g., a celebrity that he follows), the person with whom it was shared will not see the post on her own home page but would be able to see it if she came to the user's profile page.
Figure 13.4 shows Malcom's profile page. The default view, shown in this figure, has all the posts by a user. Notice that “Posts” is highlighted on the menu toward the top of the page. This view also includes the people in the user's circles.
FIGURE 13.4 Malcom's posts on Google +, the default view for his profile page.
The menu toward the top of the page includes several other views for the user. Photos, YouTube, and Reviews show specific types of content as the name indicates. Note that YouTube and Reviews are actually pulling content from these other Google services that the user would have accessed with his Google account.
The About section contains profile information, similar to what you would find in the About section for a user on Facebook. Figure 13.5 shows Malcom's About section. This includes another list of people in Malcom's circles as well as demographic and personal information.
FIGURE 13.5 Malcom's “About” section in his profile page, which includes personal and background information.
It is difficult to see where to draw the line on what counts as a Google + feature versus what counts as a different Google service. For example, Google advertises Hangouts (their group video chat service) as part of Google +, even though it can be used otherwise. For the purposes of this book and in the interest of investigation, we have limited our view to the core social networking features.
Google + is sometimes touted as the world's largest social network, with 1.5 billion users, though this is misleading. This counts everyone who has a Google account as a user, though the majority of those people are not actively using Google + in any real way. Google has pushed adoption of Google +. For example, anyone who wants to comment on a YouTube video (YouTube is owned by Google) needs to have a Google + account. Thus, many people may technically have Google + accounts and use them to comment on YouTube, but they may otherwise ignore the site entirely.
Because Google account holders are such a large percentage of the population, it is hard to gauge exactly what demographics are unique to Google +. However, the consensus of online demographic studies is that Google + trends dramatically male, with men comprising over ⅔ of active users on the site.3 Users also tend to be more technically oriented and younger than their Facebook counterparts.4
Google + has a number of ways to search for people. The most straightforward is to type a name into the search box at the top of every page. You can see examples of this in Figures 13.3–13.5, above. All people with matching names will be returned as results of the search.
Their “Find People” interface5 offers a number of search options. Figure 13.6 shows the main page for finding people. In the center is a list of options to connect email accounts to search for contacts on Google +. Beneath that, Google + has looked at the employer Malcom listed on his account—the International Monetary Fund—and found a list of other Google + users who have also listed it. On the left, there is a menu that allows Malcom to see others who have listed his employer or alma mater (Haverford College). Clicking on those links will bring up a list of people that share the trait.
FIGURE 13.6 The main Find People interface on Google +.
Beneath that are options to search for coworkers or classmates. Figure 13.7 shows the window that pops up when searching for a coworker (the classmate interface is basically the same). The user can type in an organization's name, and Google will help complete the name to help find the right match. Note that beneath that is a box that is checked that adds this place of business to the user's profile as somewhere they worked. That box needs to be unchecked in order to search any organization without adding it to the profile. The results of this search will be anyone who has the organization listed as a place they worked. The same logic applies to searches for classmates; people who have listed a school in their profile will appear in those search results.
FIGURE 13.7 The coworker search box in Google +.
Searching through social connections is also a viable option on Google +. If you cannot find a target, but you know who his or her associates are, you might be able to find the target through them. Figure 13.8 shows the profile page for a user. Even though Malcom is not friends with the user, we can see two social sections: “In her circles,” which lists people the user follows, and “Have her in circles,” which lists people who follow this user. Next to each section is a list of the number of people. Clicking that number will bring up a browsable list of associates that you can look through to find a target.
FIGURE 13.8 When looking at a user's profile, you can see people they follow (“In her circles”) and people that follow the user (“Have her in circles”). This can aid a social search for a target.
At the time of writing, Google + does not support search directly for a person's email account. However, if you link your email account (as shown in Figure 13.6) and you have the target in your contact list, you may be able to locate them that way.
Once you have located a target on Google +, there are a few types of information you can obtain about him. First, on his Google + page, there is an “About” link under his profile picture at the top of the page. That will take you to his profile, which includes information like where the person works, where they went to school, descriptive personal text, and demographics like gender, age, and relationship status. Figure 13.9 shows Malcom's profile page.
FIGURE 13.9 Malcom's Google + profile.
Figure 13.9 also shows links to other sections of a user's page under his profile photo and next to the “About” link. These include pages with posts and photos, along with links to videos the person posted on YouTube and reviews he has written within Google. These all can be valuable sources of information about what a user is doing. Each post has an associated date and time. Figure 13.4 shows examples of dates and times shown next to a post.
Privacy Levels and Access
As mentioned above, posts, including pictures and links, are shared according to “circles” of people the user has set up. Similarly, profile information can be shared with different groups of people. Figure 13.10 shows the window the user sees when editing his profile. For each box, he can choose a privacy level. The menu for the “Occupation” section is shown open. The user can share with different levels of people, including “Your Circles” (essentially, everyone the user follows), and a custom level. This latter option lets the user choose specific circles or even specific individuals who can see the information. These same settings are available for all profile information, including lists of circles. Thus, it is possible you will be able to see profile information and posts for a target if you can find him on Google +, but it is not assured since privacy levels could prevent you from accessing this data. Of course, if the user adds you to one of his or her circles, you are more likely to gain access.
FIGURE 13.10 The privacy options for profile sections are shown. Users can control who is able to view each piece of profile data.
An Unwanted Invitation
A recent and high profile story of someone getting himself into trouble with Google + is that of a man who was arrested for an automatic invitation sent to his ex-girlfriend.
When users sign up for Google +, Google prompts them to invite people to be their friends or to join. That can include inviting all of the user's contacts through a variety of email services. Google also invites people in ways users may not understand. Fast Company explains:
Some users have even complained that Google is mining Gmail contacts to send out Google + notifications. For example, when users register for Gmail, they're automatically welcomed to Google +, too. And by default, when someone joins Google + and that person is in your Gmail contacts, Google will automatically send you a notification, along with an invitation suggesting that you “add him [or her] to your circles to stay connected.” The same occurs if someone adds you to a Google + circle. (Users have the option of adjusting these settings.)6
In this case, it is unclear what the arrested man did to send the invitation. What is clear is that his ex-girlfriend had a restraining order against him. When she received the Google + invitation, she took it to the police who arrested him a couple hours later for violating the restraining order.
Initially, the man protested that he had no idea how the invitation was sent. For an average user, that would make sense. However, in his profile, he describes himself as an “IT Pro/Software Dev[eloper]”—someone who should understand when they take an action that would send a social media invitation. The man later admitted that the prosecution would have been able to prove that he did indeed send the invitation.7
Google + was used as part of another investigation, when scientist Peter Steinmetz was arrested for bringing a riffle into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.8 Police and journalists turned to his social media accounts, including Google +, to understand his motivations. On his account, he had posted links and comments indicating he was a gun-rights advocate. Figure 13.11 shows an example of one such post.
FIGURE 13.11 A public post from Peter Steinmetz indicating an interest in gun rights.
At the time of writing, his case is still in progress.
Google + is a comprehensive social networking website with many features similar to Facebook. Users can post updates, maintain profiles, and connect with friends. The social relationships on Google + are more like those on Twitter. Users do not need to have mutual friendships and do not need to approve relationships created by other people.
Through profile information and posts, it is possible to gain a lot of insights into a target. And many people are using Google +, either explicitly for its social networking features or because they have accounts established through their use of other Google services.
1 Carlson, Nicholas. 2010. “WARNING: Google Buzz Has A Huge Privacy Flaw.” Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/warning-google-buzz-has-a-huge-privacy-flaw-2010-2.
2 Arthur, Charles. 2010. “Google Buzz’s Open Approach Leads to Stalking Threat.” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/blog/2010/feb/12/google-buzz-stalker-privacy-problems.
3 Heino, Hilary. 2014. “Social Media Demographics—LinkedIn and Google +.” Agile Impact. http://agileimpact.org/social-media-demographics-linkedin-google/.
4 Frasco, Stephanie. 2013. “A Google + Overview: Breaking Through Misconceptions.” Social Media Today. http://www.socialmediatoday.com/content/google-overview-breaking-through-misconceptions.
6 Carr, Austin. 2014. “Google + Invite Lands Man In Jail.” Fast Company. http://www.fastcompany.com/3024452/google-invite-lands-man-in-jail.
7 Manganis, Julie. 2014. “Man Admits to Evidence He Contacted Ex.” The Salem News. http://www.salemnews.com/local/x2117391343/Man-admits-to-evidence-he-contacted-ex.
8 Stern, Ray. 2014. “Barrow Neurological Institute Puts Peter Steinmetz, AR-15-Toting Doctor, On Leave.” The Phoenix New Times. http://blogs.phoenixnewtimes.com/valleyfever/2014/07/barrow_neurological_institute_puts_peter_steinmetz_ar-15-toting_doctor_on_leave.php.