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Vint Cerf on Google's privacy practices

Ellen Messmer | Oct. 14, 2011
Few companies inspire the awe — and the dread about privacy concerns — that Google does, because of its search engine, Google maps and its Street View imagery, its Gmail e-mail and other cloud-based services.

In the whole WiFi blow-up, "the controversy was that we didn't tell people we were collecting that data. We stopped." Cerf says. "We wanted to figure out where hotspots were so we could locate them later. We could locate the device and provide location services on GPS if the user had that."

Cerf adds he believes Google is still holding onto that cache of WiFi-related information that led to the whole controversy in the first place because Google has to be prepared to respond to any "grievances" legally that arise from it and it's all "evidence" that can't be destroyed.

Google has been willing in several ways to modify practices to address privacy concerns. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has criticized Google in the past, thinks the company is showing signs of warming up to ideas about how to protect consumer privacy in an era where new technologies mean it will simply have to be thought about in an entirely new way.

"The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) is 25 years old next week. It's outdated and doesn't protect people's information," says Rebecca Jeschke, EFF digital rights analyst, pointing to the need for updated law on digital surveillance. She's glad to see Google as a key part of the group Digital Due Process Coalition, which includes technology companies, civil rights organizations and academics seeking to update ECPA to provide privacy protections to newer technologies.

Some ideas for that include requiring the government to first get a search warrant before it can track the location of a cell phone or other mobile communications device, or require the government to demonstrate to a court that data they seek in monitoring of any communications medium is relevant and material to a criminal investigation.

But Jeschke notes this doesn't explain what Google itself might be doing for its own benefit with personal data it can collect.

"Google has a huge reach. We all use Google every day," she says. "Google has a ton of information about you. All that information is collected and can be linked to each other." She adds: "The fact that it's there is worrying. It's a honeypot for all sorts of people — marketers, civil litigants, law enforcement."

Google tries to be transparent about its collection practices through its online "Privacy Center" and "Privacy FAQ." And Cerf says Google does hold onto what Web searches are made based on IP address but "the IP address doesn't bind to a person." He says Google does not keep files on individuals for data collection purposes. And when it comes to business practices with third parties, any data that Google does share is done so on an anonymous basis.


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