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Google Docs Problem Raises Privacy Concerns, Again

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Problems with locked Google Docs files raises privacy concerns due to its monitoring of private files

Google is facing fresh privacy questions after some users of Google Docs found that their files had been blocked for policy violations, or had disappeared all together.

The issue emerged on Google’s product forums on Tuesday, after users began complaining of either missing files, or that they had been prevented from accessing the files in question.

Google quickly restored the files and blamed the fact that a “code push that incorrectly flagged a small percentage of Google Docs as abusive”.

privacy - Shutterstock: © Roland IJdema

Privacy Issue

“A fix is in place and all users should have full access to their docs,” a Google reprsentative added. “Protecting users from viruses, malware, and other abusive content is central to user safety. We apologize for the disruption and will put processes in place to prevent this from happening again.”

But the issue has brought home the fact that storing content in the cloud does not ensure the content actually remains private.

Google Docs is of course the search engine’s online Office productivity suite, and it seems that Google systems are actively reading or monitoring the ostensibly private files stored in Docs.

“This shows that Google is using advanced machine learning and other A.I. technologies to examine vast amounts of information in near real time,” Dana Gardner, a leading cloud expert and a principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, told The New York Times.

Gardner added that the complexity of the technology and its widespread use carried considerable risks. “A small tweak to the rules on what to flag or not can produce false positives like we saw today,” he reportedly said.

“It’s clear that Google wants to be able to exert conditions on what content can be shared,” he is quoted as saying. “It needs to automate that via machines due to scale. And it shows that mistakes in what to reject can be made, with highly impactful consequences.”

It is known that Google’s automated systems periodically scan shared files in Google Drive in an effort to detect abuse and protect users. This can include antivirus scanning, malware and phishing detection.

Privacy Row

But Google has been in trouble before over privacy concerns. In 2013 for example, Google faced the wrath of regulators in six different nations, following an initial probe into the company’s privacy policy changes of 2012.

Then EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding even suggested that what Google was doing (by changing its privacy policy) was illegal.

The pressure resulted in Google agreeing to change its privacy policy for UK customers, and in June 2015 the firm also made it easier for users to change and understand their security and privacy settings, after admitting most people don’t feel they have sufficient control over “these important decisions.”

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