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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.

But as Google moves into newer lines of business such as Google Wallet, for smartphones which will use a location-based technology to sell you stuff, the company will undoubtedly feel pressure to explain a privacy policy there. Cerf says he wasn't aware that any specific privacy policy had been formulated for this yet, but he anticipated it would be consistent with Google's other privacy practices.

Around the world, privacy is a topic of huge concern and how local law is applied varies widely. In Italy last year, for instance, a video posted on YouTube that showed an autistic teenager being punched and bullied became a legal case on privacy that led to three Google executives being given six-month suspended sentences by a Milan court.

"The Italian situation was pretty extreme, Cerf says. "I didn't agree with the court's view on that one." Google's global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, one of the executives sentenced by the Italian court, indicated in his recent blog post he's appealing the court decision.

But at the same time, Cerf says he profoundly feels how the advent of cameras everywhere and the ability to post video and photos online can be hugely disconcerting. He recounts how he stepped once off a helicopter for a meeting in Brazil and minutes later was informed a video of himself doing that had been posted to YouTube, something he found to be a discomforting experience. He says getting constant notes about being "tagged" in online photos from social networking sites such as Facebook still remains a bit of a jolt.

One of the experiences of our time is we need to understand "the extraordinary loss of privacy we get from each other," Cerf points out.

With all the privacy issues, yet another is also troubling: the attacks on users of Gmail. Earlier this year, Google disrupted what it said was a targeted phishing campaign aimed at stealing e-mail from government officials, contractors and military personnel, and Chinese political activists.

"The spear-phishing attacks against Gmail were clearly targeted at high-level officials in government and industry," Cerf says. "Whether it was Chinese-government-inspired or not, I don't know." But he notes there has been a lot of speculation that it may well have been.

Even as it seeks to influence privacy protection for a possible updated version of the ECPA surveillance law in the U.S., Google seeks to maintain some control over what it might have to do to respond to requests by law enforcement in countries abroad.

One position Google has taken is that if China or any other country requests access to any data associated with any person, "we'll follow the U.S. rules for access to the data." This has led to situations where Brazil, for instance, has asked for jurisdiction in the U.S. But Cerf says one approach that Google has taken is if the company doesn't have servers in that country, it doesn't have to respond. "We don't have servers in China. That's why we're able to say we won't respond to those queries."


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