Monday, March 9, 2009

Google and Privacy: Growing Concerns

It's inarguable that Google is rapidly becoming the official technology sponsor of the nation and globe. For the sake of argument, let's just accept this as truth, and assume this company's reach and breadth will only grow. With that in mind, it becomes paramount - and beholden on all those that relish privacy - to keep a close eye on this global leader's attention to this constitutional protection as it relates to their technological innovations.

While it might be an exaggeration to say that Google has been hostile to privacy advocates and their concerns, they've been resistant to say the least. Google has become a concern for advocates for a myriad of reasons, stemming from their lobbying activities to the actual privacy implications of some of their product lines.

As such, the Rose Foundation of Oakland, California, due to these growing concerns, rewarded Consumer Watchdog - a California consumer rights group - with significant funding to independently monitor Google's activities in Washington as well as in depth analyses of their products' privacy implications. For the past six months, Consumer Watchdog has constructively attempted to engage Google on its privacy problems - and the initial signs are not comforting.

In fact, the group's "monitoring" has so antagonized Google that Bob Boorstin, the company's Director of Corporate and Policy Communications, recently even urged the Rose Foundation to consider pulling the group's funding. Needless to say, there's quite a backdrop to this story, leading to a blistering response from Consumer Watchdog, including a letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and an eventual "apology" from Google.

Some of what Consumer Watchdog has discovered to date include: Google lobbying Congress to weaken privacy protections for medical records stored in its Google Health programs (an issue we at CFC know very well) as well as stepped-up PR efforts targeting analysts, journalists, policymakers and think tanks in order to confront, undermine, and even silence "critics" (particularly of privacy) efforts to bring "sunlight" to Google's lobbying activities and products.

Privacy fears over Google latitude

On another note, there's a whole lot of buzz around a recent product released by the company called Google Latitude, which is designed to help users share their whereabouts, along with photos and short updates, with "small groups of friends and family members."While there appears to be some features built in to protect users' privacy, there are certainly a variety of privacy implications that remain unanswered, and worthy of debate.

To get to the heart of the issue, I'd suggest people check out ReadWriteWeb's Rick Turoczy's take on some of the concerns related to this product, a news clip from the BBC delving into the product's privacy pro's and con's, as well as Privacy International's discovery and analysis of what they believe to be a lack of adequate safeguards.

Some great breaking news to report: Thanks in large part to the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation - Google is taking a strong and public stand on what legal privacy protections should apply if the government comes calling for the location data collected by Latitude.

Moving Forward: Steps Google Could Take

To quote Consumer Watchdog:

"Google should openly disclose all your lobbying positions on Capitol Hill. Google should publish all of its correspondence and policy communications to legislators, as we do, and as a way of practicing the open information culture it preaches. In Washington, unlike California, policy positions are often written on blank pieces of paper untraceable to the corporate authors. This is incompatible with Google's vision for the world.

Google should create a Chief Privacy Ombudsman, independent of your corporate structure and general counsel, that reports directly to you and the board of directors... dedicated not to the bottom line or a legislative agenda, but to honest dialogue about privacy would speak frankly to your board and serve you well."

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