October 15, 2018

Google’s Breach of Trust

“Shares of Google parent company Alphabet Inc. were dipping on Monday after the Wall Street Journal reported the company discovered a way for outside companies to potentially tap into Google users’ digital information and decided not to tell the public about it. I have three immediate takeaways:

1) This data privacy glitch is just like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, except it isn’t.

2) Google made the wrong decision.

3) Consumers still can’t make informed choices about safeguarding their digital information.

First, the Google discovery concerned the company’s Google+ service, an ill-fated attempt to create a Facebook-like social network inside of Google. According to the Journal, Google discovered that for two to three years ending earlier in 2018, outside companies that could hook their apps into Google+ were able to access some information that friends of Google+ users intended to keep private, including their birth dates and profile photos.

Yes, this is similar to Facebook’s problem with Cambridge Analytica, which appeared to take advantage of loose Facebook rules to gather information on people’s Facebook friends without their overt approval. Google+ is not Facebook, however. The Journal said that in a test in late March, Google found that the software glitch potentially affected about 500,000 Google+ accounts. The company couldn’t determine whether any Google+ information had actually been accessed through this software bug.

That’s a relatively small number of potentially affected people, particularly compared with the scale of Cambridge Analytica. Facebook said the academic working with the firm could have gathered information on up to 87 million people.

But on to point number two: The relatively small scale of the Google+ security hole does not excuse Google’s actions. The company evaluated a set of circumstances, including the public outrage over the Cambridge Analytica scandal at Facebook, and chose not to tell the public about the flaw in Google+. The company did this in full knowledge of the blowback it would face if the Google+ privacy glitch was known, and that makes what Google did completely indefensible. If the company had disclosed the Google+ problem in March, it would have been a big deal but not a crisis. This cover-up, however, makes the Google+ digital-security problem so much worse.”

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