Monday, June 18, 2007

The Actual Interim Privacy Rankings: Is Google really hostile and aggressive?

With so much chatter about the "Google Sucks at Privacy" story put out by Privacy International, I thought it would be useful to provide a link to their source document: interimrankings.pdf . Here's a quote:

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.

I have to say that the use of the word "hostilities" in this context is surprising. I've been involved in some pretty serious privacy and security cases and nobody was accused of hostility in their approach to privacy. For example, I was involved when the Federal Trade Commission brought charges against Eli Lilly for violating privacy. I helped Microsoft comply with certain requirements imposed by the FTC to settle charges arising from security and privacy issues. But hostilities? Here's more:
While a number of companies share some of these negative elements, none comes close to achieving status as an endemic threat to privacy [my emphasis]. 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. Google's status in the ranking is also due to its aggressive use of invasive or potentially invasive technologies and techniques.

If Google is guilty of "aggressive use of invasive technologies and techniques" where are the regulators and politicians and consumer outrage? Surely Google hasn't bribed them all.
Google's increasing ability to deep-drill into the minutiae of a user's life and lifestyle choices must in our view be coupled with well defined and mature user controls and an equally mature privacy outlook. Neither of these elements has been demonstrated. Rather, we have witnessed an attitude to privacy within Google that at its most blatant is hostile, and at its most benign is ambivalent. These dynamics do not pervade other major players such as Microsoft or eBay, both of which have made notable improvements to the corporate ethos on privacy issues.

I feel compelled to add a phrase to that last sentence: "after consumer outcry." Microsoft was dragged before the FTC and eBay was heckled by members. I'm not aware of widespread consumer outcry over Google. So, I suggest you read the above-referenced "interim" document and decide for yourself. Note that the report was compiled
...using data derived from public sources (newspaper articles, blog entries, submissions to government inquiries, privacy policies etc), information provided by present and former company staff, technical analysis and interviews with company representatives.

Because the 2007 rankings are a precedent, Privacy International will regard the current report as a consultation report and will establish a broad outreach for two months to ensure that any new and relevant information is taken into account before publishing a full report in September.

Does Privacy International make its case or is it really just trying to force Google into a dialogue by holding out the hopes of a less critical final report?

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