Google “Undermines Privacy Safeguards” Says Lawmaker

A quick response from Google to a request for information from legislators about its recent privacy policy changes prompted criticism from a vocal member of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus. In a somewhat simple letter addressed to the eight congressmen who inquired last week about Google’s new policy, the company stressed it is not collecting new or added user data and will not sell personally identifiable information.

“Despite Google’s recent response, it still appears that consumers will not be able to completely opt-out of data collection and information sharing among Google’s services. Congress and consumers need more details, and I look forward to meeting with Google to get clarification about what the options are for consumers who wish to say no to these new changes,” said Rep. Ed Markey, co-chair of the privacy caucus, in a statement sent to ClickZ News.

Google’s January 30 response also reiterated benefits of the alterations for users, and suggested that “misconceptions” about the changes needed correction.

Last week Google said that starting March 1, 60 of the more than 70 privacy policies associated with its various platforms and services will be boiled down to one, simpler policy. Through the consolidation, cross-platform data tracking that already exists for Google is made more transparent to users.

“In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience,” wrote Alma Whitten, director of privacy, product and engineering at Google in a post introducing the policy changes.

The announcement triggered a letter from eight House Members, including Joe Barton, Edward Markey, Jackie Speier, and Cliff Stearns, each of whom have sponsored privacy bills. The letter asked why Google made the changes, and requested responses to questions about what types of data the company will track and across which platforms, as well as how the data is protected and how it is used. Google’s January 30 response stated that in particular, the changes allow it to combine search history with YouTube data.

Before, “if a user is signed in and searching Google for cooking recipes, our current privacy policies wouldn’t let us recommend cooking videos when she visits YouTube based on her searches – even though she was signed into the same Google Account when using both Google Search and YouTube.”

The company’s less-than-detailed response may not satisfy lawmakers and privacy advocates seeking explicit information about what data Google collects and how it is used.

Also, they may criticize Google’s approach to enabling opt-out from tracking. “Individuals don’t need to sign in to use many of our services including Search, Maps, and YouTube. If a user is signed in, she can still edit or turn off her search history, switch Gmail chat to – off the record, control the way Google tailors ads to her interests using our Ads Preferences Manager, use Incognito mode on Chrome, or use any of the other privacy tools we offer,” wrote the company in its response.

“Sharing users’ personal information across its products may make good business sense for Google, but it undermines privacy safeguards for consumers,” stated Markey.

In their inquiry letter to Google, the lawmakers noted, “We believe that consumers should have the ability to opt-out of data collection when they are not comfortable with a company’s terms of service and that the ability to exercise that choice should be simple and straightforward.”

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