Thursday, July 9, 2009

Privacy Concerns Abound Over Google's New ‘Net-based Operating System'

Here we go again. Google's continued "belligerence" when it comes to the issue of privacy begins to become a problem as the size and scope of this company, and the corner it has on market after market, keeps exponentially expanding. Now, I've posted a lot about Google's less than stellar record on privacy in the past, from their lobbying efforts in Congress, to cloud computing, and to its increasing usage and expansion of behavioral marketing techniques.

But please, this is getting to be an almost bi-weekly endeavor now. So let me give the proper backdrop by quoting yours truly:

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.

So that's the initial framing I like to begin with when discussing Google. As I have established, the company has come under continual fire for its privacy policies for quite sometime. But, the ante has recently been raised with the company's efforts to persuade Congress that its so-called behavioral advertising - which targets users based on their browsing - doesn't pose a threat to privacy. For good reason: Congress is currently considering forcing Google to adopt an opt-in model where users must actively allow Google to collect or share browsing history and user data.

Google’s announcement Wednesday that it will release a new operating system that moves currently computer-based functions to its proprietary Internet “cloud” has brought a new round of questions and concerns to the forefront.

But here's where it starts to get really interesting. Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group, "has obtained a “confidential” and “proprietary” Google presentation for lawmakers that touts Google’s commitment to “transparency,” but skirts tough questions about its secretive user data tracking, storage and sharing policies."

The group, as I have also posted about in the past, was given a grant to independently monitor Google's activities in Washington as well as in depth analyses of their products' privacy implications. For the past eight or so months, Consumer Watchdog has constructively attempted to engage Google on its privacy problems - and the initial signs have not been comforting.

Let me quote a few more choice clips from Consumer Watchdog's press release before I get to an excellent article on this breaking news from PC World:

Google increasingly spies on what consumers do online, including what web sites they visit; creates dossiers on users’ online behavior without their prior permission; then harvests this private information to sell hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising.

Consumer Watchdog posted the presentation along with an annotated version, prepared by an industry insider, that calls out Google’s deceptions. The group urged lawmakers and the Justice Department to view both versions and consider strict limits on how Google collects and uses its customers’ online behavior.

Click here to view the document

“The Justice Department should be worried when Google tries to obfuscate its data tracking capacity and reach rather than disclose all of it,” said Judy Dugan, research director of Consumer Watchdog. “Congress should demand that Google stop tracking Americans’ online behavior without their prior permission. Whatever Google does will quickly become the industry standard.”

The annotated version of the presentation notes that Google’s strangely labeled path to opting out of this invasive advertising is hidden beneath “layers of privacy policies,” that it takes seven clicks to install a permanent opt-out, and that watching all 38 of Google’s videos explaining its dense privacy policies takes 3.8 hours, nearly as long as Gone With the Wind.


Google’s new operating system could also comb users’ stored documents for information on what the company calls “interest categories.” The depth of this potential data collection is not mentioned in the Google spin document...(that) was provided by an anonymous industry insider familiar with Google’s lobbying who has provided other Google spin documents.


“Google should stop dodging, ducking and weaving when it comes to squaring its do-no-evil pledge with its cyber-spying and ‘confidential’ memos, said Dugan. “The company could eliminate all privacy doubts with a simple page-one button allowing users to affirmatively allow the company to track their personal online habits. Google’s refusal to do so appears to confirm that evading user privacy is essential to its business model.”

Kudos to Consumer Watchdog for their continued outstanding work exposing Google, both in terms of their political tactics and their product shortcomings (when it comes to privacy that is).

Now let's dig a little deeper into Google's new "net based, open-source operating system", and why it is raising questions among privacy advocates about the amount of personal data it will enable the company to collect.

Grant Gross in PC World writes:

Google already collects private data through products like its search engine and its Gmail e-mail service, as well as its AdSense advertising service. The Chrome operating system, to be rolled out on netbook computers next year, gives the company another avenue to collect and monetize personal information, privacy advocates said Wednesday.

"Competition in the OS market should always be welcome, but Google is the special case," said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group. "It has become dominant across many essential Internet services -- search, mail, video, online apps and advertising."

Google has a growing profile of Web users and has been reluctant to support some privacy safeguards, Rotenberg added. For example, Google has been cool to proposals to require that online vendors get opt-in permission before collecting customers' personal data. Rotenberg called on antitrust officials in the U.S. and Europe to "view Google's entry into the OS market with enormous skepticism."

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, another privacy advocate, agreed. "I think the new OS has to be placed under the data collection x-ray by U.S. and E.U. privacy regulators and advocates," he said. "Any expansion into the marketplace by either Google or Microsoft should generate intense scrutiny, especially for the privacy implications."

Click here to read the rest of the article.

It goes without saying I'm in agreement with some of my privacy advocate friends quoted in the above article and press release. So rather than pontificate and repeat their points, let me leave you with five key questions Consumer Watchdog wants Congress to ask Google. Good stuff!

1. Why isn’t Google’s behavioral advertising opt-in rather than opt-out?
2. Why not prominently include a link allowing users to permanently opt-out of Google tracking?
3. 2008: Google says it has no plans to use behavioral advertising… [that] it doesn’t work. What changed?
4. Is Google’s behavioral advertising really about delivering more interesting ads or is it about expanding its data collection and targeting activities?
5. And just for fun… [Consumer Watchdog’s review: “Delicious, don’t-miss, nosy roommate spoof!”]

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