OK Google. How Do I Remove Hangouts?
“OK, Google. How do I remove Hangouts?”
This week, my Google Talk / Google Chat/ Hangouts account wasn’t connecting inside my third-party chat client. The chat account uses a Gmail address that I don’t use for email. As a troubleshooting measure, I went to verify that the password was still current. It was, but upon logging in using my current password, Google indicated: “We’ve noticed unusual activity on your account” and gave me a chance to enter a phone number to get a verification code in order to reset my password.
One problem. I have NO phone number on file with Google, period. However, I was given no other option to proceed. So I entered a phone number to an office telephone at my current employer. No one I know has this number, even my closest friends and family – it is a private internal number. Even my coworkers don’t know this number (although they could find it). It worked – Google called with a reset code. I could have entered any phone number – in fact, I did. If my account had been hacked or inappropriately accessed by a person or group, Google just re-opened access to them. Do I think that a Google account I don’t even use was breached? At this point, no. Do I think that Google was after some more information on me?
Possibly. Probably. Definitely.
Why? One reason: every time I logged into to a Google service over the past couple of years (including Gmail and YouTube), Google had been presenting me with a screen to add new account recovery options. They weren’t interested in email information though… they only requested phone numbers.
Upon Google’s re-opening access to my account, I went through the email logs. No messages had been sent out for months. No new messages had been received for months. Again, this is an account I don’t use for mail, so all was normal. In addition, no new chats had come in or gone out from the Gchat service, nor had I received feedback from any of my contacts that odd activity had been noted (no spam). Then I checked YouTube, the only other Google service linked to this particular account. Again, I found zero signs of abnormal activity.
Incidentally, after resolving the alleged account issue with Google my Gchat is still not working. I can’t connect with the new credentials even directly through Google/Gmail (though I’m logged in and can do everything else, including emailing or uploading a video to YouTube). This may not be related to the original sign-in issue, but a frustrating result nonetheless. According to an acquaintance, Gchat/Hangouts was working just fine in his neck of the internet-woods. For me, it simply says “Loading…”
I get the same result inside my third-party chat client. No dice.
And for the icing on the troublesome cake: during my troubleshooting and recovery efforts, I discovered that Google has been logging all my chats – yes, the ones that were received through a third party chat client. “OK… so it’s just a default setting that’s turned on. I’ll go turn it off”, I thought to myself. No. Similar to emails that go through Gmail servers, Gchat/Hangout chats are logged and logging cannot be turned off, except for “individual chats” according to Google. Note the 2nd paragraph below: “…but you cannot turn chat history off for all of your chats.”
Based upon my experiences and findings today, I’m leery – at best – about continuing with Google in this way. I have already removed my Google Hangouts account from my third party chat application. What stinks is that I’m a big fan of many of their products and services, including Android. We all know that our online activities can be easily analyzed, especially by Google, which is why I don’t use them for email. I purposely have withheld information from them because I know they use it – it’s how they make their money to support tens of thousands of employees and continue to develop and innovate. But the awareness of their chat system never struck me because I never read about or researched their chat logging policy.
This isn’t new – privacy concerns have swirled around Google and their competitors for years. But back to the issue… was my account breached? Why could I recover it with literally any phone number I wanted? If there is a chance that Google is stooping to methods like these just to get information from a single average web designer in the Midwest, it may be time to take some action.