Google Triggers Privacy Concerns With Policy Violation Patent

Google potentially risks being stuck with the “big brother” label after it was revealed it is seeking to patent a scanning tool for policy violations and law breaking.

Google is attempting to patent a technology that would allow electronic documents, including email, to be scanned for phrases or words that refer to illegal or improper conduct so that the offending language could be red-flagged for some kind of punitive action.

Big Brother?

In a 2 May application with the US Patent & Trademark Office, Google seeks to patent a “Policy Violation Checker” that would provide “methods and systems for identifying problematic phrases in an electronic document,” according to the records.

“A context of an electronic document may be detected. A textual phrase entered by a user is captured. The textual phrase is compared against a database of phrases previously identified as being problematic phrases. If the textual phrase matches a phrase in the database, the user is alerted via an in-line notification, based on the detected context of the electronic document.”

The application was originally filed in August 2012, according to the records.

So what is Google thinking about this patent application?

“Electronic communication is now the primary way most business employees communicate with one another,” the company wrote in its application. “Text documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and electronic mail (email) allow users to communicate and collaborate without the delay imposed by traditional paper-based communication. However, emails and other communications between employees can implicate potential violations of company policy or local, state or federal law that can go unchecked by attorneys or other legal personnel.”

That’s where the idea for the Policy Violation Checker can come into play.

“It is in the best interest of companies to prevent violations of company policy or laws before they occur,” stated the application. “As businesses grow, the number of documents in a business rises exponentially, and the potential that a particular document may implicate a violation of law or company policy grows. Business employees often knowingly or unknowingly discuss actions that could potentially lead to violations of company policy, such as a confidentiality policy, or run afoul of the law.”

The system could be implemented using software, firmware, hardware or in combination, according to the application. It could run on almost any kind of device, including a computer, distributed computing system, embedded system, stand-alone electronic device, networked device, mobile device, set-top box or television.

Privacy Implications

“It is in a company’s best interest to minimise or eliminate policy violations and/or situations that could give rise to legal liability,” the application stated.

In response to a 7 May email inquiry from eWEEK, a Google spokesman said that the application doesn’t mean that such a technology will ever be released or sold by the search giant.

“We file patent applications on a variety of ideas that our employees come up with,” the spokesman said. “Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services; some don’t. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patent applications.”

Jeffrey Child, an associate professor of communications and privacy expert at Kent State University, said he doesn’t buy that characterisation by the Google spokesman.

“It’s just ludicrous to think that they’re not in the works on this technology,” Child told eWEEK. In the past, ideas have circulated for how to do this kind of data scouring inside organisations to ensure that employees or others aren’t sharing secrets improperly or engaging in illegal conduct, but so much information is stored and available that it would take too much effort to get it done on an everyday basis, he said. Organisations, including companies, certainly own the information that their employees produce, from emails to phone calls, on company equipment.

“But that produces a phenomenal amount of data,” said Child. “This feels like an adaptation of that,” he said of the Google patent application.

“Should people be concerned?” he asked. “Absolutely. I think it’s something to be concerned about, including who gets to decide what gets passed on to whom.”

The problem is that a technology like this could be used in bad ways that could hurt people, he said. “You need to be cautious in anything you do online. I suspect that this is the first of many ways that will arise to scour huge quantities of data.”

What most worries Child, he said, is that this kind of technology could be used by people or organisations to spy on others. “What if someone wants to buy this to spy on and see what their significant other is doing? That is a violation of personal privacy. That’s where this becomes an issue of personal ethics and whether you are going to openly talk about this or snoop.”

In a related matter, Google in recent months has been loudly assailed for its privacy policy practices when it comes to its users around the world. One of the key issues arising in Europe surrounds Google’s handling of personal user data.

In April, Google was hit with an $189,167 (£122,256) fine in Germany for collecting user data without fully disclosing the practice as Google StreetView vehicles combed German streets collecting information for its maps back from 2007 to 2010.

Are you a pedant on privacy? Try our quiz!

Originally published on eWeek.

Todd R. Weiss

Freelance Technology Reporter for TechWeekEurope and eWeek

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