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Google 'Red Team' To Test Product Privacy

Taking privacy seriously translates into new hires for Google.

Google for years has said that it takes privacy very seriously, but the company's recent $22.5 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission for breaking privacy promises and its commitment last year to endure 20 years of FTC privacy audits following "deceptive privacy practices" is pushing the company to take privacy with new, improved seriousness.

After confessing to being "mortified" in 2010 over revelations that its Street View cars had been vacuuming data cast blithely into the air by people running open WiFi access points, Google appointed Alma Whitten to be its director of privacy, added an information security awareness program for employees, and began requiring engineering product managers to keep a privacy design document for every project.

Now, Google is formalizing internal processes to test product privacy with the formation of a "red team," a group that attempts to challenge an organization's defenses in order to make those defenses more effective. In the security world, this often takes the form of penetration testing. Financial institutions, for example, often hire hackers to try to break into their systems and then implement improvements as needed.

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A Google job posting, first noted by Kaspersky Lab, calls for candidates to apply for the role of Data Privacy Engineer, Privacy Red Team.

"As a Data Privacy Engineer at Google you will help ensure that our products are designed to the highest standards and are operated in a manner that protects the privacy of our users," the job posting says. "Specifically, you will work as member of our Privacy Red Team to independently identify, research, and help resolve potential privacy risks across all of our products, services, and business processes in place today."

Google declined to comment beyond this statement: "We are always on the lookout for talented people in a variety of roles," a company spokeswoman said in an email.

In 2006, as it was developing and deploying its Web productivity apps, Google made its concern about security more visible with support for organizations like StopBadware.org. Google subsequently launched a security blog in May, 2007. The security process for Web apps at the time just wasn't as formalized as what Microsoft was doing for desktop app security.

But concern about privacy lagged. In 2008, Google was being chided by California State Assemblyman Joel Anderson for not having a link to its privacy policy on its home page, as required by state law. Google was more worried about speed than privacy: The company resisted adding a privacy link because the text would add a few extra bytes to the "weight" of its home page, slowing it by milliseconds and making it unnecessarily cluttered.

The existence of a "red team" inside Google is likely to be seen as a sign that the company is taking privacy seriously. But increasingly, what's going on outside Google is shaping the privacy debate.

Privacy has become a point of competitive differentiation. Google's chief rivals, Apple and Microsoft, have realized that Google can only take privacy so far before it starves itself of the personal data it needs to maximize revenue from the ads it serves. And Mozilla, caught off-guard by Google's introduction of Chrome in 2008, has had to reinvent itself, even as it continues to collect millions from Google every year for making Google the default search engine in Firefox.

So it is that all the major browser vendors except Google--Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera--have implemented support for Do Not Track, a technical mechanism by which browser users can communicate the desire not to be tracked for targeted advertising.

The seriousness of Google's avowed concern about privacy gets called into question when competitors provide privacy protections that Google does not. Whether or not Google will eventually be shamed into abiding by Do Not Track, the company is looking to fill other positions that underscore its commitment to privacy. These include: Privacy Engineer, Product Manager, Privacy, or Technical Program Manager, Ads Privacy Policy.

Google emphasizes the significance of this last position because whoever fills it will influence the company's advertising business practices. "For many users, advertising is where the rubber hits the road, because misuse of user information for advertising purposes creates a strongly negative user experience," the job posting says.

The formation of a Privacy Red Team may be noteworthy, but Google's privacy pacesetter is likely to continue to be its ad team.

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