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Google Privacy Failings Criticized by Ten Countries

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Privacy officials from 10 countries on Tuesday penned a letter to Google criticizing its approach to privacy, pointing to its Buzz and Street View products as examples.

"We are increasingly concerned that, too often, the privacy rights of the world's citizens are being forgotten as Google rolls out new technological applications," Jennifer Stoddart, the privacy commissioner of Canada, wrote in the letter.

It was also signed by the privacy commissioners of France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Google introduced Buzz in early February. The social networking product added a "news feed" feature to Gmail, and also added some social components to Google mobile on Android and the iPhone.

Amid concern over how much personal information was being made public, Google tweaked Buzz several days after its debut, making it more clear how information was shared, and simplifying the process for blocking or following other users.

In March, several members of Congress also penned a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, asking the agency to investigate Buzz-related privacy concerns.

Stoddart acknowledged the changes to Buzz in her letter, but said they highlighted a larger issue. "We would have expected a company of your stature to set a better example," she wrote. "Launching a product in 'beta' form is not a substitute for ensuring that new services comply with fair information principles before they are introduced."

Google defended its policies and products.

"We try very hard to be upfront about the data we collect, and how we use it, as well as to build meaningful controls into our products. Google Dashboard, the Ads Preferences Manager and our data liberation initiative are all good examples of such initiatives," a spokesman said in an e-mail. "Of course we do not get everything 100 percent right – that is why we acted so quickly on Buzz following the user feedback we received. We have discussed all these issues publicly many times before and have nothing to add to today's letter – instead we are focused on launching our new transparency tool which we are very excited about."

Stoddart accused Google of rushing to release products before and then fixing problems as they arise. "Privacy cannot be sidelined in the rush to introduce new technologies to online audiences around the world," she wrote.

The letter also points to Google's Street View, a mapping product that provides 360-degree, street-level photos of streets in various cities around the world. When it was first launched, there was concern about Google's cameras capturing photos of people walking on the street, which Google fixed by agreeing to blur peoples' faces.

Stoddart, however, says this approach is evidence of Google cleaning up a mess after the fact, "and there is continued concern about the adequacy of the information you provide before the images are captured," she said.

Stoddart and the other privacy commissioners are calling on Google to "incorporate fundamental privacy principles directly into the design of new online services." That includes: collecting only the minimum amount of data necessary; providing clear information about how data is used; creating privacy protection default settings; ensuring that these privacy settings are prominent and easy to use; ensuring that personal data is protected; and giving people simple procedures for deleting accounts.

She asked Google for a response "indicating how Google will ensure that privacy and data protection requirements are met before the launch of future products."

In November 2009, Google launched Dashboard, which provides users a snapshot of the information Google has stored from 20 different Google products, including Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Web History, Orkut, YouTube, Picasa, Talk, Reader, Alerts, and Latitude.

This is not the first time Stoddart has made headlines with privacy inquiries into top U.S. tech firms. In August 2009, Facebook announced that it would beef up its privacy notifications and embark on an year-long overhaul of its developer platform after Stoddart's office expressed concern about the site's policies.

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