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Monday, June 11, 2007

Privacy International vs Google

Privacy International, a self-proclaimed “human rights group formed in 1990 as a watchdog on surveillance and privacy invasions” last weekend released a report (see detailed PDF) which ranks Google lowest among all companies considered. Google’s Matt Cutts responds in a blog post* saying he’s frustrated about what he believes are false claims in the report. “I personally feel strongly about protecting our users’ privacy,” Matt says, and refers to the practice of ISPs selling user data as a topic worth more attention.

Now, I wonder if Google simply ranks last because in the eyes of Privacy International they have the most information, users and tools online? Quote (with my emphasis):

We are aware that the decision to place Google at the bottom of the ranking is likely to be controversial, but throughout our research we have found numerous deficiencies and hostilities in Google’s approach to privacy that go well beyond those of other organizations. While a number of companies share some of these negative elements, none comes close to achieving status as an endemic threat to privacy. This is in part due to the diversity and specificity of Google’s product range and the ability of the company to share extracted data between these tools, and in part it is due to Google’s market dominance and the sheer size of its user base.

So it may not always be the actual privacy standards within Google, which may or may not be high, but the sheer scope of Google’s accumulated information on users which poses a risk (which can turn into an actual issue especially when governments demand to get their piece of this information**). Even so, while Google is information-hungry, they often ask for less user data than competitors; if you sign up for a free Microsoft web mail account (Windows Live Hotmail), for instance, you’re asked for your birth year, gender, country, state and zip code, as well as your first and last name (as far as personal information goes). Signing up for a Google web mail account (Gmail) only requires you to provide your first and last name.

If we agree that Google stores a lot of information, which creates a lot of ways for them to connect the data they have on us, we can still see that some statements of the PI report are verifiable false... which somewhat discredits the report as a whole. For instance, PI says:

Google fails to give users access to log information generated through their interaction with Google Maps, Google Video, Google Talk, Google Reader, Blogger and other services.

It’s easy to find that Google Talk, one of the services mentioned, allows you to log conversations, which you can then find saved in your Gmail account***. On the other hand, when it comes to the feature of accessing “interaction logs,” I’m curious to see which company actually allows that, as Google is somehow singled out for this. Is there anyplace in Yahoo Mail where I can see a log file of every time I signed in to the application; deleted an email; opened an email; clicked on an ad; logged out (for the sake of argument, let’s say I’m actually interested in such information)?

Furthermore, Privacy International on their site go on to say that “Google has embarked on a smear campaign within the media to discredit both PI and the report.” In an open letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, PI director Simon Davies writes (my emphasis):

I am writing to express my concern ... at communications between Google Inc and members of the media ... Two European journalists have independently told us that Google representatives have contacted them with the claim that “Privacy International has a conflict of interest regarding Microsoft”. I presume this was motivated because Microsoft scored an overall better result than Google in the rankings.

Simon Davies writes they “are happy to reach out to anyone, regardless of their affiliation” and demands “an apology” from Google.

*I like how the permalink reads “privacy-international-loses-all-credibility” but the current title is a more polite “Why I disagree with Privacy International.”

**Google in March 2007 released an FAQ on their log retention policies [PDF], including this bit: “Q: How many subpoenas for server log data does Google receive each year? A: As a matter of policy, we don’t provide specifics on law enforcement requests to Google."

***Google Talk also offers you the choice to go off-the record, upon which logs won’t be visible to you.

Ongoing comments

[Thanks Colin Colehour, Olivier B. and!]


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