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Friday, January 27, 2012

Google Worries About New Data-Handling Privacy Laws

First appeared in USA Today
They may be battling each other tooth-and-nail to win over online advertisers. But Google and Facebook are on the same side when it comes to opposing new data-handling privacy laws fast-gelling in Europe and the U.S.

On Wednesday, the European Union formally proposed strict rules that could restrict much of the systematic tracking and profiling Google and Facebook routinely do of Internet users, as part of delivering targeted ads to them.

If Europe's new rules are implemented as expected in 2013, the tech rivals could face hefty fines, up to 2% of annual revenue, for any violations. In Google's case that translates into a maximum penalty of $800 million.

On Tuesday, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg delivered a statistics-filled speech at a tech conference in Munich outlining how Europe's proposed rules are very likely to stymie the global economy.

Sandberg called for a "regulatory environment that promotes innovation and economic growth."

Google spokesman Chris Gaither echoed Sandberg's argument. He says the search giant "supports simplifying privacy rules in Europe to both protect consumers online and stimulate economic growth."

Meanwhile, refinements announced this week by Google and Facebook, about how each tracks and profiles Internet users, added heat to the domestic debate over the need for new data privacy rules here in the U.S.

Google signaled that it will begin cross-referencing user data compiled from its most popular services, including search, Google Apps, Gmail and YouTube. The stickler: Users won't be permitted to "opt out" of having their Google activities correlated.

"Google is taking that option away," says P.J. McNealy, analyst at Digital World Research. Younger Internet users may not care much, he says. But Google patrons who are "more cautious or conservative with their personal data" may "cringe," McNealy says.

Meanwhile, the non-profit group SafeGov, which monitors security issues for federal, state and local government agencies, is alarmed that Google's new policy could put workers who use Google Applications for Government, a paid service, at heightened risk.

"Google should not be data-mining information in e-mails, text messages, searches and documents that workers are putting into Google services," says Jeff Gould, SafeGov security analyst. "It's a matter of not making government workers unnecessarily exposed to hackers and to inadvertent disclosures of information."

Google Vice President Amit Singh says Google's new privacy policy for consumer data is superceded by data privacy provisions in contracts with government agencies and other organization who use the paid version of Google Apps.

"As always, Google will maintain our enterprise customers' data in compliance with the confidentiality and security obligations provided to their domain," says Singh.

But Gould checked the city of Los Angeles' contract with Google and found that the data-privacy provision referred back to Google's policy for consumers. "They didn't think through the consequences for government users," Gould says.

Meanwhile, Google is busy fielding inquiries from a handful of politicians who've proposed legislation that would restrict online tracking and establish rules for data privacy.

"Amazingly, we still don't have a law that sets the rules of the road for fair information practices that everyone collecting, using, and distributing people's personal information must adhere to," says John Kerry, D- Mass.

Kerry and Sen John McCain, R-Ariz., continue to work for passage of the Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights. "Until Congress acts, Google and the rest of its competitors will continue to set that standard themselves. "

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., notes that "Googling is like breathing for millions of kids and teens - they can't live without it." Markey, who has also been critical of Facebook's tracking practices, is calling on the Federal Trade Commison to review Google's new no-opt-out policy.

"Consumers - not corporations - should have control over their own personal information, especially for children and teens," says Markey.

Facebook is drawing more scrutiny too. It is making mandatory a new, glitzier user interface, called Timeline, that chronologically displays a member's preferences, contacts and online activities.

Facebook says Timeline does not present any new information nor alter any privacy settings.

Even so, SafeGov analyst Gould, for one, is concerned. "If you take the new Google policy and combine it with Facebook Timeline, the danger of hacking attacks for government users is multiplied by ten," he says.
More intensive tracking and profiling by the tech rivals puts richer data in cyberscammers' hands.

Gould worries about the all-too-common scenario where an intruder e-mails a government worker pretending to be an acquaintance. "They can put information in an e-mail which they can get from your Facebook Timeline, and trick you into downloading a piece of spyware," he says.

Heightened cross-referencing of an individual worker's Google Search Company, Gmail and YouTube activities poses similar risks, he says.