Monday, November 16, 2009

Google Voice Violates Google's Privacy Policy

I've done a whole lot of posts on Google and their ever expanding technological empire and the rather confrontational relationship its had with privacy advocates that can add some perspective to this latest "privacy snafu" (all be it a minor one).

I've written about the approaching launch of Google Books just around the corner in which the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Samuelson Clinic have even launched a Google Book Search privacy campaign to address.

I've written about the loss of "Locational Privacy" and how a host of Google products relate to that growing privacy protection challenge.

And I've posted a lot about other examples demonstrating 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.

In a nutshell, as I wrote a few months back, "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."

With that, the Washington Post published an article in last Friday's edition entitled "How Google Voice Violates Google's Own Privacy Policy", in which it details how the Google Voice service systematically replaces friend's phone numbers with their Google Voice numbers when they call, even when they aren't calling from Google Voice. As the author notes, this is a clear violation of Google's own privacy policy.

Michael Arrington of writes:

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 "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.


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 sharingGoogle 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.

Click here to read more.

As noted by the author, none of the exceptions listed in the privacy policy apply to this case, and as such, Google needs to add an opt in for this feature. As it is, Google wants consumers who have Google Voice to use that number, and this problematic feature is a way of ensuring this happens.

Nonetheless, as again the author notes, just because someone gives you one of their phone numbers doesn't mean they want to give you their Google Voice number. Maybe they abandoned the service. Or maybe they just don't want you to have that number. Regardless, this is a clear example of an "opt-in" feature.

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