Google Defends Privacy of Gmail Service

Wed, Dec 31, 2008 at 10:14 am

    A Santa Monica, California-based nonprofit group that advocates for consumers is calling for the Internet’s search and ad leader to change the way it records users’ information.

    Officials with Consumer Watchdog say they want to see Google Inc. store personal search data for less than its current nine months, following Yahoo!’s lead, and also to give users a choice to “opt out” out of data retention, as some other search engines do.
    According to the group’s policy advocate, John M. Simpson, the issue is about choice.
    “People should have the right to choose what they do with their personal data and if they provide it all,” Simpson said.
    The group is seeking a meeting with Google (News – Alert) Chairman Eric Schmidt.
    Specifically, Consumer Watchdog says that the privacy of users of Google’s free e-mail service, Gmail, is threatened in two ways: by storing private information on servers through auto-saving, and through a feature of the Google Chrome browser.
    In a response to Consumer Watchdog, Google wrote a letter saying that the so-called “Suggest” feature of its Google Chrome browser, in fact, protects user privacy.
    Google says that it stores a random sample of just 2 percent of requests received through Suggest in order to monitor and improve its service.
    “To protect user privacy, we ‘anonymize’ the IP addresses within 24 hours of receiving this random sample,” Google says. “Additionally, users can turn off the Suggest feature at any time by clicking the wrench icon, going to the ‘Options” menu and clicking the ‘Manage’ button on the ‘Basics’ tab.”
    Google also said in its letter that it does no “packet sniffing” – a form of interception that is illegal – and that Google Chrome has built it an “incognito” mode that protects users’ privacy.
    The company says that Consumer Watchdog largely misunderstands its policies and practices. For example, the company says that Gmail, in fact, leads the industry in protecting Web mail.
    “Gmail has supported SSL from the day it launched, even though other free Web mail services typically do not support SSL,” the company says. “SSL keeps mail encrypted as it travels between your Web browser and our servers. We use SSL to protect your password every time you log into Gmail, but we don’t use SSL once you’re in your mail unless you ask for it. This is because SSL can make your mail slower.”
    Concerns about privacy are nothing new to Google.
    As TMCnet reported, one group of Japanese professors and lawyers recently called on the company to get rid of a service that gives users detailed street-level images via satellite.
    Citing privacy concerns, a group of Japanese professors and lawyers reportedly is calling on the Internet’s advertising and search leader to get rid of a service that gives users detailed street-level images via satellite.
    According to Reuters (News – Alert) reporter Yoko Kubota, the group – calling itself the Campaign Against Surveillance Society – says that the “Street View“ feature of Google Inc.‘s Google Maps offering violates rights to privacy.
    Kubota reports that the group’s leader – Yasuhiko Tajima, a professor of constitutional law at Sophia University in Tokyo – believes that Google’s giving Web users the ability virtually to drive down a street and look around, violates human rights.
    “It is necessary to warn society that an IT giant is openly violating privacy rights, which are important rights that the citizens have, through this service,” Kubota said.
    When reached by TMCnet, a Google spokesperson referred to a company statement regarding privacy on Street View.
    In response to Consumer Watchdog’s concerns, Google noted that its Gmail users choose how to send and receive e-mails.
    “In any e-mail exchange, senders and recipients have the option to determine how messages are respectively sent and retrieved, as well as what e-mail service provider they may choose to use,” Google said.

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