Privacy is a priority. Our business depends on it

Peter Barron, Google’s communications chief, says his company ‘bakes privacy’ into all its products.

Peter Barron

Topics Science & Tech

Privacy is an important issue for internet companies. We at Google are very aware of the trust our users place in us and of our responsibilities in protecting their privacy. Privacy is a priority not least because our business depends on it. We believe in the principles of transparency and choice and aim to design products that give users meaningful choices about how they use our services and what information they share with us.

We bake privacy into all our products and systems. We provide industry-leading privacy tools like Google Dashboard, which allows users to view and manage the data associated with their account. We were the first leading search engine to announce the anonymisation of search logs and we believe our nine-month retention period for IP addresses balances questions of security, innovation, and anti-fraud efforts with protecting users’ privacy by anonymising IP addresses after that period. We accept, of course, that we have made some mistakes – on WiFi data for example – but where we have made mistakes we have responded quickly and transparently and we are determined to learn from them.

Take the problems with Streetview vehicles capturing WiFi data, for example. The cars were collecting WiFi network data (MAC address and SSID information) for use in improving our location-based services such as Maps for Mobile – that’s something other companies have been doing for years. Unfortunately we also collected samples of what’s known as payload data, which could include emails or the URLs of sites that users were visiting at the moment our cars passed by. That data was never used in any Google product, but collecting it was a mistake and we are profoundly sorry about it. When we discovered our mistake we immediately stopped driving, isolated the data, and we’re working with the data protection authorities in the countries involved to dispose of it safely. We are not continuing to collect data in this way. Given the concerns raised we think it is best to stop collecting all WiFi data using the Street View cars.

We are also taking steps to safeguard people’s privacy. For example:

  • A user can use Google search without signing up for an account and without having to provide a name, email address, or other personally identifying information. If they do choose to sign up for a Google account, we are able to maintain a history of previous searches in order to make future searches more relevant. So users can choose how personal or anonymous they want their search experience to be;
  • In addition to the Chrome browser’s incognito mode – a way to browse the web without leaving traces of website visits on your computer or downloads in your browser history – you can now manage your privacy settings in Chrome’s preferences;
  • And in Street View, if a member of the public doesn’t want an image of their house to appear on the service, or if they spot an inappropriate image or a problem with facial or number plate blurring, they can report the problem using the simple privacy tools to have the image removed or blurred within hours.

We consult and cooperate widely with data protection authorities around the world, and we also have regular dialogue with privacy advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Privacy International. Within Google we have experienced privacy lawyers whose sole focus is to address these issues. We also have a team of lawyers on staff whose job is to think about the privacy implications in the development of products from inception to launch and who solicit feedback from privacy advocates worldwide about our products and privacy practices. We also have government-affairs teams who are engaged in developing a sensible framework for privacy regulation.

Google is not the threat to privacy some reports would have people believe. Take a look at the Google home page – there are only around 30 words there and one of them is Privacy. If you click on the link you can see a great deal of information about our privacy policies and principles, look at our privacy tools such as Dashboard and Ads Preferences Manager, and learn about initiatives such as the Data Liberation Front, a group of engineers within Google whose aim is to make it easy to take your data with you if you want to leave a Google product. We handle very large amounts of data every day and we have an excellent record in keeping that data safe. We know that the only thing that keeps people coming back to Google’s products is their trust in those products, so users’ privacy is and will remain of the utmost importance to us.

Peter Barron is Google’s director of communications and public affairs for North and Central Europe.

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Topics Science & Tech


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