How Google Voice Violates Google's Own Privacy Policy (Updated)

I’ve had a nagging frustration in my otherwise perfect relationship with Google Voice. The service systematically replaces my friend’s phone numbers with their Google Voice numbers when they call, even when they aren’t calling from Google Voice. Not only has this led to a lot of confusing and time wasting “how did you get my Google Voice phone number?” conversations, it is a clear violation of Google’s own privacy policy.

Here’s how this works: Let’s say you signed up for Google Voice sometime in the past. The main benefit of Google Voice is that it forwards calls to your other phones – the whole “one number for life” thing. So you probably told Google Voice a few of your other phone numbers – home, work, mobile, etc. And then perhaps you stopped using the service after testing it.

Now if you call my Google Voice number from any of those real phone numbers that you told Google about, the caller ID and archived information on Google Voice (missed and received calls, voicemails) says your Google Voice number, not the number you are calling from.

That creates confusion. If I have your mobile number stored in my phone, it doesn’t recognize the Google Voice caller ID and I tend to ignore the call. Then I read the transcribed voicemail and realize it’s someone I know. I check my address book and the number isn’t right, though. I add the new number and maybe delete the old one, thinking you’ve changed phones. It’s a mess.

Inbound text messages have the same problem. And if I return the text message and you don’t have the feature turned on to your real mobile phone, you won’t get them. Or at least I think this is what happens. It’s all very confusing.

I get why Google is doing this. They want people who have Google Voice to use that number, and this is a helpful way of pushing the issue. It’s free marketing, and there is a logic behind the “feature,” too.

But just because someone gives me one of their phone numbers doesn’t mean they want to give me their Google Voice number. Maybe they abandoned the service. Or maybe they just don’t want me to have that number.

What if you sent me an email from your work account to my Gmail account, and Google automatically changed the from address to your Gmail account? This is a direct analogy to what’s happening with Google Voice.

And it’s a clear violation of Google’s privacy policy, which states:

Information sharing

Google only shares personal information with other companies or individuals outside of Google in the following limited circumstances:

  • We have your consent. We require opt-in consent for the sharing of any sensitive personal information.
  • We provide such information to our subsidiaries, affiliated companies or other trusted businesses or persons for the purpose of processing personal information on our behalf. We require that these parties agree to process such information based on our instructions and in compliance with this Privacy Policy and any other appropriate confidentiality and security measures.
  • We have a good faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of such information is reasonably necessary to (a) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request, (b) enforce applicable Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations thereof, (c) detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues, or (d) protect against harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, its users or the public as required or permitted by law.

None of these exceptions apply here. Google needs to add an opt in for this feature, and do a better job of syncing these calls in my address book, or abandon the practice.

Update: I’ve spoken with Google Voice cofounder Vincent Paquet this morning, who says that this is a feature of SMS but should not be happening with voice. I can verify the issue with SMS last night, and I can’t say with certainty that the previous times that I’ve noticed the issue it involved a voice call, not just SMS (its all one big inbox on Google Voice and voicemails are transcribed, so things aren’t segmented like the old days). Also the problem did not occur in a test call this morning with Vincent from a land line. Google Voice will change the SMS feature to opt-in, they say, and are looking into the voice issue.

On the one hand this makes the issue less severe if only SMS is affected. But it also means that for friends that I talk to and SMS with things can get really confusing with multiple phone numbers showing up in Google Voice.