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RSA 2013: Google Blasts ‘Dishonest And Misguided’ Privacy Criticism

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

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Google’s privacy lawyer tells us Microsoft’s “Scroogled” attack on Gmail privacy policy is “intellectually dishonest”

Google has come out fighting in the face of strong criticism of its privacy practices, following a Microsoft marketing campaign that suggested Gmail users were getting “Scroogled”.

Microsoft’s aggressive marketing includes a website –  Scroogled.com – which describes way in which Google is “Scroogling” [abusing the privacy of] its customers, and a link to a petition asking Google to stop inspecting users’ emails in order to target ads. “Google earns money by violating your privacy. They go through every word of your personal Gmail so they can target you with ads,” a message on the petition page reads.

But Google senior corporate counsel for privacy, Keith Enright, told TechWeekEurope at RSA 2013 in San Francisco today that anyone who suggested Google’s ad-targetting algorithms infringe user privacy or run counter to users’ wishes was being “misleading and intellectually dishonest”.

Google bullish on privacy

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Yet Google is getting criticism from a number of corners over privacy. Just this week, privacy campaigner Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, urged the US government to look into how Google hands over names, geographic region and email addresses of people who buy apps from its Play store to the application developers, seemingly without their permission – an issue raised last weak by Australian web developer Dan Nolan.

Edelman claimed that nowhere in Google’s terms and services does it make users aware this data would be shared.

Meanwhile, a survey carried out by Big Brother Watch, a UK-based privacy advocate group, found seven in 10 respondents thought it was right EU regulators had gone after Google over privacy issues.

Enright denied Google was public enemy number one when it came to privacy, even though it has been fined substantial sums of money over privacy issues and is being threatened with action by regulators in Europe. Enright denied Google had not submitted adequate answers to questions posed by CNIL, the French regulator that has been tasked with investigating whether tech titan is breaking the law when it rolled all its privacy policies of its different services into one document.

Instead, it was CNIL that failed to respond to Google questions on more technical matters and how best to answer regulators’ questioning, Enright said, claiming the regulator had not accepted Google’s offers to meet and discuss matters further. CNIL and the Article 29 Working Party, consisting of privacy watchdogs from across Europe, is convening this week to discuss what action it will take against Google.

“We have, in fact, responded to every request in a timely manner and we continue to do so. We continue to offer to meet in person with CNIL and to engage with them to resolve their questions over our privacy policy,” Enright added.

During the panel session at RSA 2013, Microsoft’s chief privacy officer, Brendan Lynch, said privacy was now becoming a feature and market forces were driving it forward. That might be why Microsoft’s marketing campaign is being so aggressive on the issue.

“Because consumers are telling us they care a lot about privacy, there are market forces at play. And we will see a lot more innovation in the privacy space,” he told TechWeek. “Our marketing campaign has become an evolution of that – consumers are telling us they are concerned about how data is being used online.”

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