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8/24/2009
07:54 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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How Google Can Stop Being Beaten With Privacy

When it comes to privacy, Google can't seem to get a break. The Swiss data protection commissioner recently blindsided Google by calling for the suspension of the company's Street View service.

When it comes to privacy, Google can't seem to get a break. The Swiss data protection commissioner recently blindsided Google by calling for the suspension of the company's Street View service.Google, which presumably launched Street View in Switzerland last week with full knowledge of all the other privacy controversies related to Street View and the company's other online services, nonetheless said it was surprised by the data commissioner's statement and that it's working with Swiss officials to deliver a service that conforms with Swiss law.

That Google can still be surprised by privacy concerns is in itself surprising and suggests the company ought to approach privacy more proactively.

Google would benefit from doing so because greater attention to privacy would defang its foes. Every individual and organization with a grudge against Google knows that privacy worries work.

Privacy International, Consumer Watchdog, and other advocacy groups know that targeting Google's privacy practices generates press coverage. When Google gets sued, it often has to do with privacy -- the blogger who criticized model Liskula Cohen plans to sue Google for violating her privacy, the Borings in Pennsylvania sued because they felt Street View invaded their privacy, and so on.

Privacy just doesn't seem to matter much in Google's data-driven world because privacy isn't something that's easily quantified. Google reinforced that view when it refused to put a link to its privacy policy on its home page and later relented when it found that the link could be added without slowing the home page load time.

Even Apple picked up the privacy stick to whack the Google pinata: In its recent response to the FCC inquiry into Apple's refusal to approve the Google Voice app for the iPhone, Apple cited privacy concerns as one of the reasons that it has not approved the application. "[T]he iPhone user's entire Contacts database is transferred to Google's servers, and we have yet to obtain any assurances from Google that this data will only be used in appropriate ways," the company said.

TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington called this a "complete fabrication" and noted that Apple provides the ability to sync iPhone contacts through its own iTunes software.

Google ought to make privacy a priority. Not just as a matter of public relations -- I've lost count of how many times Google, not to mention other organizations, have used the phrase "We take privacy very seriously" -- but as a core feature of its services.

What would that look like? Google could:

• Allow users to choose not to have any search data retained • Allow users to encrypt the data they store with Google • Make users have to opt-in to behavioral ad targeting rather than opt-out • Put its privacy enhancing tools, like license plate and face blurring algorithms for Street View, into an online service so that users themselves can flag invasive images • Back legislation to establish a mechanism by which consumers can find out what information companies have about them and correct or remove that information

Some of these possibilities could be available for a fee. Chances are few would avail themselves of such options, so the impact on Google's operations would be small. But by doing so, Google might regain the privacy high ground and deprive its critics of a potent weapon.

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