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1/31/2012
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Google Defends Privacy Policy Consolidation

Google sends letter to congressional representatives to clarify pending privacy policy revisions.

Responding to concerns expressed by members of Congress about its forthcoming privacy policy consolidation, Google on on Monday sent a 13-page letter to eight members of the House of Representatives.

Pablo Chavez, Google's director of public policy, characterized the letter in a blog post as an attempt to clear up confusion about what the company is trying to do by combining more than 60 separate privacy policies into a single policy and similarly unifying multiple terms of service documents.

When Google last week announced its intent to clean up its privacy policies on March 1, Google privacy director for products and engineering Alma Whitten explained that the company "may combine information you've provided from one service with information from other services." This will allow service personalization in one Google service to be informed by data from a different Google service, and hopefully provide a better user experience across products.

As an example, Google in its letter notes that its current privacy policies would not allow it to recommend cooking videos on YouTube to a signed-in user who had previously been searching for cooking recipes.

[ Google's service policies don't please everyone. Read Google+ Name Policy Leaves Users Unsatisfied. ]

Harmless though that may sound, Google's plan has elicited concern from government officials, in part because Google is under the microscope at the moment. Regulators in the U.S. and Europe are presently investigating whether the company is conducting its search business in an anti-competitive manner. Google has also invited such scrutiny through the introduction of a search feature called Search plus Your World, which mixes Google+ posts and images in Google search results, to the potential detriment of competitors like Facebook and Twitter.

Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), among others, issued a statement last week questioning how much control Google users have over their personal information and asserting that users must be able to decide whether they want their information shared across Google services.

Google's letter assures lawmakers that its commitment to protecting the privacy of its users has not changed and that the upcoming changes will lead to a better experience for users. At the same time, the letter confirms that users will not be able to opt-out of the forthcoming change.

"If people continue to use Google services after March 1, they'll be doing so under the updated privacy policy," the letter states in response to a question about the possibility of opting out. "The use of a primary privacy policy that covers many products and enables the sharing of data between them is an industry standard approach adopted by companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and Apple."

But the letter goes on to point out that more than 30 Google services, such as Google Search and YouTube, can be used without signing in to a Google Account, thereby precluding the collection of personal data beyond the user's IP address.

It also points out some of the tools Google provides to help users control how their personal information is stored and used, like Google's Dashboard and Ad Preferences Manager, the privacy features supported in Chrome and Gmail, and the company's Data Liberation service, which provides a way to export most Google data.

How can companies find and fix vulnerabilities before they lead to a breach? Better yet, how can software developers identify flaws in their applications before the new software is ever deployed? In this report, Eliminating Vulnerabilities In Enterprise Software, Dark Reading offers a look at some tips and tricks for software development and vulnerability assessment. (Free registration required.)

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