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Google Prepares to Share Your Contacts with the World. Again

08
Jul
2011

Cameron Camp just blogged about the announcement that Google is going to delete all private profiles at the end of July. This really wouldn’t be a big issue if it wasn’t for the fact that Google is as two faced as you get on privacy and has a history of neglecting user privacy, such as when they launched Buzz and exposed the contacts of people who were unfortunate enough to have a public profile. That’s the clincher. you must have a profile to use certain Goggle services, but you were able to keep the profile private.

The decision by Google to expose contacts without notification or consent does not appear to be an accident. Google apologized for causing users concern, but not for exposing the contacts. In fact, due to a settlement with the Federal government Google has apologized again, but not surprisingly, in vague language. The apology posted on March 30th says “We’d like to apologize again for the mistakes we made with Buzz.” But still does not call exposing private contacts a mistake. You would think that the company who produces one of the top sets of communications products in the world could communicate, but that seems a bit beyond the grasp of Google. In fact Google seems to be trying to hide the fact that they are going to be deleting private profiles. Google owns Gmail, but have you received anything in your Gmail inbox about the change? I know I haven’t. You might expect Google to know a thing or two about SEO, but if you search for “Google to delete private profiles” you will have to do a lot of digging to find the news from Google themselves.

If you look at the Google “Privacy Center” the double-speak is alarming

Do you see a problem with this?

We have five privacy principles that describe how we approach privacy and user information across all of our products:

1 Use information to provide our users with valuable products and services.
2 Develop products that reflect strong privacy standards and practices.
3 Make the collection of personal information transparent.
4 Give users meaningful choices to protect their privacy.
5 Be a responsible steward of the information we hold.

This Privacy Center was created to provide you with easy-to-understand information about our products and policies to help you make more informed choices about which products you use, how to use them and what information you provide to us.

Item number 3 says “Make the collection of personal information transparent”. This means you do not know what information is collected and obviously you cannot control what you are unaware of. Item 4 says “Give users meaningful choices to protect their privacy”. Sorry, but hiding what you are doing does not allow users to have meaningful choices. Items 3 and 4 are at odds. The launch of Buzz showed that Google fell flat on number 5, being a responsible steward of the information they hold and Google has never specifically apologized for exposing contacts without user consent and has never indicated they would not do so again. It is precisely for this reason that the decision to require public profiles for many of their services is so alarming.

If Google takes exception with anything I say, then maybe it is time to send their management and PR organizations back to school to study communications and then clearly, concisely, and openly, and proactively communicate. To start with, Google can clarify what “mistakes” they were apologizing for when they launched Buzz, it might not be the same thing you call a mistake.

Randy Abrams
Director of Technical Education
Cyber Threat Analysis Center
ESET North America

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