Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What Can Google Do to Address Privacy Concerns?

This is a question I'd like to pose to some of my privacy expert friends, as I'm sure there are a slew of suggestions as to how exactly this could be effectively done by Google. For the sake of today's post, I'm just going to focus on some ideas posed by Thomas Claburn of Information Week.

So to be clear, these are only a few suggestions for Google from one writer - and not meant to be a comprehensive list in and of itself.

As I have written about fairly extensively on this blog, Google has developed an adversarial relationship with privacy advocates and a bordering on disdain for privacy rights and protections. If you don't believe me I'd suggest you check out some or all my prior posts on the subject.

My guess is that if you didn't already know all the "problems" Google has in this area you'll be rather shocked to find out. My last post on the subject was about two weeks ago and it delved into the growing concern over "locational privacy" as individuals move through public space.

But let's get to today. Information Week reports:

Google, which presumably launched Street View in Switzerland last week with full knowledge of all the other privacy controversies related to Street View and the company's other online services, nonetheless said it was surprised by the data commissioner's statement and that it's working with Swiss officials to deliver a service that conforms with Swiss law. That Google can still be surprised by privacy concerns is in itself surprising and suggests the company ought to approach privacy more proactively.


Privacy just doesn't seem to matter much in Google's data-driven world because privacy isn't something that's easily quantified. Google reinforced that view when it refused to put a link to its privacy policy on its home page and later relented when it found that the link could be added without slowing the home page load time.

Even Apple picked up the privacy stick to whack the Google pinata: In its recent response to the FCC inquiry into Apple's refusal to approve the Google Voice app for the iPhone, Apple cited privacy concerns as one of the reasons that it has not approved the application. "[T]he iPhone user's entire Contacts database is transferred to Google’s servers, and we have yet to obtain any assurances from Google that this data will only be used in appropriate ways," the company said.


Google ought to make privacy a priority. Not just as a matter of public relations...but as a core feature of its services. What would that look like? Google could:

Allow users to choose not to have any search data retained

• Allow users to encrypt the data they store with Google

Make users have to opt-in to behavioral ad targeting rather than opt-out

• Put its privacy enhancing tools, like license plate and face blurring algorithms for Street View, into an online service so that users themselves can flag invasive images

Back legislation to establish a mechanism by which consumers can find out what information companies have about them and correct or remove that information

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

I'd welcome other suggestions for what concrete, positive steps Google could take in addressing the issue of privacy from anyone reading this blog today. In general, the ideas laid out in this article match up very well with many of the kinds of policies and principles I and others have argued for too. I would also agree with the author's other important thesis: That it would be in Google's own self interest to do so!

What I find disturbing is that the suggestions advocated in this article aren't ALREADY law or common policy. The right to not have my personal data shared and profited off and the right to have the option to choose what happens to that information and how well its protected seems to me to be a fundamental right protected in our constitution.

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