Google's Privacy Principles Fall Short

To celebrate Data Privacy Day, Google has published its 5 guiding privacy principles:

  1. Use information to provide our users with valuable products and services.
  2. Develop products that reflect strong privacy standards and practices.
  3. Make the collection of personal information transparent.
  4. Give users meaningful choices to protect their privacy.
  5. Be a responsible steward of the information we hold.

The principles are further explained in a video on the Google Blog (interestingly posted by an engineer, not one of Google’s legal/policy folks).

I like these principles; they are something every organization should commit to and strive for. The problem is, Google hasn’t adhered to them quite as closely as they’d want you to believe. Let’s consider each:

1. Use information to provide our users with valuable products and services. This isn’t so much a privacy principle as it is a disclaimer for what Google purports to do with all the data it collects about its millions of users. Google tracks what we do in order to know whether our search for “Paris Hilton” is about the blond or the hotel. This principle merely presents the value proposition for Google’s potential violation of user privacy.

2. Develop products that reflect strong privacy standards and practices. A very important goal, but the product featured in Google’s video, off-the-record chats in iChat, isn’t providing the kinds of privacy protections that most consumers or advocates clamor for. Certainly, being able to control (to an extent) whether my chats are logged is a way to protect my privacy, but what about IP logging or behavioral targeting? Perhaps Google doesn’t want to bring up its current data retention policies given Microsoft’s recent announcement. And perhaps it doesn’t want to actively promote one of its truly innovative privacy protecting product — the Google Advertising Cookie Opt-Out Plugin — since the more users who install the plugin, the less valuable its advertising platform becomes.

3. Make the collection of personal information transparent. Despite what Google claims about Dashboard, there remains an enormous lack of transparency regarding the collection of user information (Google Analytics comes immediately to mind). If Google was committed to transparency, it wouldn’t have resisted placing a link to its privacy policy on the homepage. If Google was committed to transparency, its behavioral targeting system would be opt-in and would provide a conspicuous link to “Ad Privacy Preferences”.

4. Give users meaningful choices to protect their privacy. Google touts the ability to report problems in Street View and the removal of one’s search history as examples of this principle. Of course, the Street View example has a horrid history, and removing your search history only removes it from that product’s interface, not from Google’s main server logs. That’s a limited choice, not a fully meaningful one.

5. Be a responsible steward of the information we hold. I have faith that Google is indeed being responsible with our information, and that it is keeping it secure. But while security is often necessary to ensure privacy, it certainly isn’t a sufficient condition, and the gaps in the preceding principles overshadow Google’s good stewardship.

In summary, I do give Google much credit for the steps they’ve taken in recent years to improve its privacy practices and communication. But too often its rhetoric is too self-congratulatory, and fails to recognize serious gaps in its approach to user privacy.

These principles are vital, and I hope Google continues to strive to meet them. There is much work still to be done.

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