Google Privacy Director Leaving As Global Probes Continue

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

Alma Whitten is leaving amidst various investigations into Google privacy practices

Google’s privacy director, Alma Whitten, is stepping down from the role amidst many questions surrounding the tech giant’s respect for user data.

Just today, it emerged that a host of European privacy watchdogs, including the UK regulator, are to decide on what action to take over Google’s privacy policy. It had been suggested Google may have broken European law when it brought all its services’ privacy policies into one document, and now it is facing action in various nations after it was claimed the firm did not make any changes as asked.

It has been a tough few years for Whitten, who is based in the UK. She was asked to lead product and engineering privacy department at Google in 2010, shortly after the Street View Wi-Spy scandal kicked off, when the company was found to have collected people’s data during its mapping projects.

Google privacy nightmares

google-streetview-car-largeThe Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the UK privacy watchdog, is set to make a final decision on the case imminently, possibly in the next month, TechWeekEurope understands. It reopened its investigation after US authorities found Google was sitting on far more information than had been thought at first.

The French hit the tech titan with a €100,000 penalty, whilst in the US the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initially issued a $25,000 fine over the privacy incident. Just last month,  it was reported Google was to pay a $7 million settlement to end the US government’s probe into the Street View data slurping.

Whitten has seen plenty of regulatory scrutiny focusing on a range of Google practices during her time at the top. In late 2010, the firm paid $8.5 million to settle a lawsuit which claimed the Google Buzz social networking service violated privacy after contact details were shared without user permission.

In August of last year, Google was fined  $22.5 million by the Federal Trade Commission, after it was alleged the company wrote code to bypass Safari privacy settings that blocked user tracking cookies by default. UK users are now suing Google over the same issue.

Even Microsoft is sticking the knife in, with its latest marketing campaign claiming Google users are getting “Scroogled” as their messages are being trawled over for targeted ads.

Google was thankful for Whitten’s help nonetheless. “Alma has done so much to improve our products and protect our users. The privacy and security teams, and everyone else at Google, will continue this hard work to ensure that our users’ data is kept safe and secure,” company said in a statement sent to media.

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