Watchdog savages Google over privacy

The internet’s key players are “appalling” at protecting their users’ privacy – most pose a “substantial threat” to your confidentiality and not one is ‘privacy-friendly.’

After six months examining the policies and insider stories at over 20 Web portals, Privacy International added that only three – Wikipedia, eBay and the BBC - are ‘privacy aware.’

However the trio, like all the firms scrutinised including Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, could take “minimal” steps to cover lapses in user privacy - a problem that is endemic at Google.

“Throughout our research we have found numerous deficiencies and hostilities in Google's approach to privacy that go well beyond those of other organisations,” the watchdog said.

“While a number of companies share some of these negative elements, none comes close to achieving status as an endemic threat to privacy.”

The Californian giant, which disputes these claims, was singled out as deserving a ‘black-mark’ for user privacy, despite fighting a federal subpoena last year to overturn users’ data.

Users of its services, stretching from search to networking applications, must accept Mountain View servers can retain a large amount of data about them, often indefinitely, PI said.

Google fails to acknowledge it collects sensitive data – saying an IP address is not personal information, will share user data with consent, and is poor at responding to complaints.

Its privacy mandate is not embedded throughout the company, PI noted, and moreover, its user privacy policy is “vague, incomplete and possibly deceptive.”

The reason Google is the only net player with a black-mark for user privacy, meaning it practices “comprehensive surveillance” of its users, is partly down to its diverse product range.

Its market dominance and sheer size of its user base are important too, but its unique ranking in PI’s report “is also due to its aggressive use of invasive…technologies,” its authors say.

The company’s Toolbar product was indirectly criticised, as it enables Google to collect all search results entered, and identifies users with a cookie that lets the firm track users’ web movement.

Google has dealt with similar criticism in the past by saying users can disable Google cookies.

But Privacy International questioned whether the opt-out was really the ‘fair gateway’ Google presents: without cookies “some services may not work well” and “when account is created it is sticky,” the watchdog said.

Another example of ailing user privacy is evident in the giant’s documentation, which “fails to explain the detailed data processing elements or information flows” at Google.

The watchdog added that Google has so far shown an “ambivalent attitude” to challenges to privacy, such as its reaction to complaints to EU privacy regulators over Gmail, its e-mail service.

One corporation traditionally berated by Privacy International – Microsoft, has, by contrast, “adopted a less antagonistic attitude to privacy and has at least structurally adjusted to the challenge.”

What separates Microsoft and Google in terms of how they respect user privacy was cited as stemming from the “the corporate ethos and leadership exhibited by each.”

By declaring that “five years ago Microsoft could reasonably be described as a fundamental danger to privacy” it appears from PI’s report that Google has replaced its archrival as the tech-enabled privacy menace.

Privacy International pointed out that Windows Live Space received a ‘red’ security rating, while Google’s Orkut “avoided a black rating” to emerge as an equal danger, suggesting both products pose a “substantial and comprehensive privacy threat.”

Google has reportedly said it takes issue with the methodology used by Privacy International to compile their consultation report, which is due to be complemented in September.

The search company has reiterated its policies of protecting its users’ privacy and offering transparent products which enable consumers to control their personal information.


13th June 2007

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