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Google’s Page Clueless When It Comes to Privacy Concerns About Glass

4:34 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Google CEO Larry Page simply doesn’t get it when it comes to privacy concerns about the Internet giant’s new computerized eyewear, Google Glass. He made that crystal clear at the annual shareholders’s meeting Thursday.

Google GlassI made my annual trek to Mountain View to attend the Internet giant’s shareholder meeting and pose some questions directly to Google’s top executives. I said Glass is one of the most privacy invasive and Orwellian devices ever made because it allows a user to surreptitiously photograph or video us or our kids. “It’s a voyeur’s dream come true,” I said, before noting the hypocrisy in unleashing a device that enables massive violations of everyone else’s privacy, but operating under rules that barred cameras and recording devices from the meeting. Take a look at a video from the meeting.

“Obviously, there are cameras everywhere, ” responded Page. “”People worry about all sorts of things that actually, when we use the product, it is not found to be that big a concern.”

“You don’t collapse in terror that someone might be using Glass in the bathroom just the same as you don’t collapse in terror when someone comes in with a smartphone that might take a picture. It’s not that big a deal. So, I would encourage you all not to create fear and concern about technological change until it’s actually out there and people are using it and they understand the issues.”

John SimpsonPage tried to compare the video cameras on ubiquitous smartphones with Google Glass. That’s exactly the point. There is a huge difference. I don’t collapse in fear that I’ll be videoed in the bathroom by a smartphone camera precisely because it’s obvious that someone is using the camera. I can politely ask them to stop, or escalate my protests as appropriate if necessary. Indeed, consider this satirical video, “Supercharge”, featuring Page and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt if you don’t understand what I mean. It’s obvious Schmidt is invading the privacy of the gentleman in the next stall. Take a look at the video. You’ll see what I mean.

It doesn’t work that with Glass and that’s what is so creepy. There’s an app that snaps a photo with a wink. People have no idea that they are being photographed or videoed. That’s what people are worried about and they want the ability to delete videos and photos from Google’s database when they discover their privacy has been invaded.
Page says we shouldn’t worry about “technological change until it’s actually out there and people are using it.” He’s wrong. You need to to think about the impact before the technology is implemented. That’s what’s entailed in the concept of privacy by design, something that Google just doesn’t seem to get.

And here’s another point to ponder: As Google was holding its annual meeting, The Washington Post was breaking the details of NSA’s overreaching, intrusive snooping on users of some of the biggest Internet companies including Google with its PRISM program. Can’t you imagine a billion Glass users and a billion winks and the data that would flow to NSA?

Posted by John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. Follow Consumer Watchdog online on Facebook and Twitter.

Google Glass Won’t Allow Facial Recognition Apps For Now

8:28 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Google GlassGoogle is apparently reacting to widespread concerns about one of the most privacy invasive and Orwellian potential applications for its computerized eyeglasses known as Google Glass. Late Friday the Internet giant said it won’t — for now — allow facial recognition software on the device.

Facial recognition software has pretty much been developed to the stage where if such an app were allowed on Glass, a user could scan a crowd, select a face and rapidly discover the person’s identity and all the myriad details about them available on the Internet.

It would be Big Brother at his best. (Or is that worst?) However, from what I can see Google’s announcement is little more than a PR move. Google is not making any long-term promises. Indeed, the Internet giant is very much keeping the door open for including facial recognition software in the future. Google offered this post of explantion on its Google+ Glass page:

When we started the Explorer Program nearly a year ago our goal was simple: we wanted to make people active participants in shaping the future of this technology ahead of a broader consumer launch. We’ve been listening closely to you, and many have expressed both interest and concern around the possibilities of facial recognition in Glass. As Google has said for several years, we won’t add facial recognition features to our products without having strong privacy protections in place. With that in mind, we won’t be approving any facial recognition Glassware at this time.

We’ve learned a lot from you in just a few weeks and we’ll continue to learn more as we update the software and evolve our policies in the weeks and months ahead.

John SimpsonYou’ll recall that Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has said that the company’s policy on privacy is to go right up to the “creepy line,” but not to cross it. So, for now facial recognition is beyond the creepy line. The question is: How long will be before the “creepy line” is pushed further down the road so that facial recognition software is OK?

Meanwhile, Computerworld reports that apps developers are scrambling to write software for Glass. Already in the mix are apps from Twitter, Facebook, CNN and Elle. And, it’s not only mainstream apps that are focusing on Glass. Mikandi just announced it has developed a porn App for the computerized eyeglasses.

Posted by John M. Simpson, Director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. Follow Consumer Watchdog online on Facebook and Twitter.

Bipartisan Privacy Caucus Asks Important Privacy Questions About Google Glass

1:33 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Sergey Brin Wearing Google Glass Eight members of Congress have sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page asking tough and necessary questions about the Internet giant’s new wearable computing device, Google Glass.

The letter from members of the Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, whose Co-chair is conservative Joe Barton, (R-TX), says, “As members of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, we are curious whether this new technology could infringe on the privacy of the average American.”

It’s great to see that in a largely dysfunctional Congress some members can reach across the aisle and demonstrate that privacy is not a partisan issue. Besides Barton others signing the letter are Rep. John Barrow (D-GA), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), Rep. Henry C. “Hank” Johnson Jr. (D-GA), Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), Rep. Richard Nugent (R-FL), Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA).

The letter also poses several questions intended to make sure consumers’ rights are protected. They include:

  • When using Google Glass, is it true that this product would be able to use Facial Recognition Technology to unveil personal information about whomever and even some inanimate objects that the user is viewing? Would a user be able to request such information? Can a non-user or human subject opt out of this collection of personal data? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • In Google’s privacy policy, it states that the company “may collect device-specific information (such as your hardware model, operating system version, unique device identifiers, and mobile network information including phone number).” Would Google Glass collect any data about the user without the user’s knowledge and consent? If so, why? If not, please explain.
  • Will Google Glass have the capacity to store any data on the device itself? If so, will Google Glass implement some sort of user authentication system to safeguard stored data? If not, why not? If so, please explain.

Read a copy of the Bipartisan Privacy Caucus letter here.

John M. SimpsonThe Representatives want answers to their questions by June 14. I’m betting that Google stalls. Ultimately I think the Representatives will need a Congressional hearing where CEO Page has to answer queries under oath.

As word of the Privacy Caucus’s letter was being reported, Google was holding its annual meeting with developers. Google Glass product director Steve Lee claimed in a “fireside chat” that the Glass team takes privacy seriously.

What a joke! The fact is that Google has become a serial privacy violator. It’s executives just don’t understand what privacy means and there is no reason to expect that they will. For instance, asked about whether Glass will offer facial recognition technology, Lee said, “We’ve definitely experimented with it but it is not in the product today. I can imagine that existing…”

Posted by John M. Simpson, Director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. Follow Consumer Watchdog online on Facebook and Twitter.

Microsoft Should Act Now To Protect Online Privacy

8:09 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

IE LogoMicrosoft, which is trying to position itself in a major advertising campaign as a privacy friendly Internet company, should take a simple step that shows it means what it says.

Online tracking is pervasive and invasive on the Internet. The most insidious is performed by companies that most consumers don’t even know exist, so-called 3rd parties on the websites you chose to visit. By putting little bits of computer code known as cookies on your browser, they are able to track your every move as you surf the web.

Most people don’t realize the extent to which this brazen online tracking is done, but when the practice is described, they want to be able to control it. Why should a company I know nothing about, have no say over and no relationship with be able to collect information about my online activity? On the other hand, though most consumers want some say over whether data is collected by sites they choose to visit, they are less concerned about such data collection by a site they have selected, a so-called first party.

Consider If you buy a book from them, Amazon records what you’ve purchased and makes suggestions about other books you might like the next time you visit the site. Many people find that helpful and useful.
Understanding the distinction between tracking by sites you choose to visit (first parties) and sites with which you have no direct relationship (third parties), Apple’s Safari browser by default has for a decade honored the privacy friendly approach by blocking cookies from sites you haven’t visited. If you want to allow 3rd party cookies to be set, you can change Safari’s preferences.

Apple’s approach isn’t perfect. If your are committed, it is possible to fool the Safari browser. You’ll recall that Google was caught hacking around Safari’s privacy settings in violation of a consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission and fined $22.5 million. Nonetheless, Safari’s approach has been the most privacy friendly.

Until recently the other three browsers — Mozilla’s Firefox, Google’s Chrome and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer — have allowed users to set their preferences to block third party cookies. But the feature was turned off by default and users had to figure out how to enable the function. Most did not.
This spring Mozilla announced that it, too, would begin to block cookies by default from sites a user hasn’t visited. The Firefox update is expected to be released this summer. The announcement caught the ad industry’s attention. One trade association executive, Mike Zaneis, called it a “nuclear first strike.”

It is nothing of the sort. Mozilla simply is honoring the consumer and privacy friendly principle that before a site can gather data about you, you should have visited the site. You need to know who they are and what their practices are. What sort of responsible and lasting business model can be built upon spying on Internet users?
So, if Microsoft means what it says about protecting users’ privacy, it should join Apple and Mozilla and start blocking cookies by default from sites not visited by the user.

There is some reason to believe Microsoft will do the right thing. You’ll recall that another approach to protecting online privacy is the Do Not Track mechanism. Under this method the browser sends a header expressing a user’s desire not to be tracked. The FTC advocated this approach in its Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change report a year ago. All four major browsers now offer the option to send the message.

John M. Simpson

The problem is that there is no requirement that sites honor the Do Not Track request. The World Wide Web Consortium, an Internet standards setting group, is trying to draw up compliance obligations, but those efforts have dragged on nearly two years without agreement. What’s expected to be a final meeting attempting to reach an accord is set for next week. Don’t bet that anything gets accomplished.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has decided to send the Do Not Track message by default. Right now it’s just a signal with virtually no listeners. Blocking cookies from sites a user never visited would provide meaningful protection right now. Microsoft must not hesitate to take that step in Internet Explorer, if it is actually the privacy protecting company it claims to be.

Posted by John M. Simpson, Director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. Follow Consumer Watchdog online on Facebook and Twitter

Google’s Privacy Chief Is Stepping Down

1:16 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Google's WatchingGoogle’s privacy chief, Alma Whitten, is stepping down the Internet giant confirmed Monday. Since word of her departure came out on April Fools’ Day many folks probably thought this was part of the company’s annual elaborate pranks like its “announcement” of a new service called “Google Nose.”

I mean how many of you actually thought Google even had a privacy chief?

Whitten, an engineer based in London (now that’s a location convenient to its Mountain View Headquarters) took the position in 2010 about six months after the Wi-Spy scandal was uncovered and as Google was reaching a consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission for invading users’ privacy when it launched the ill-fated Buzz social network.

Well, about all that happened on Whitten’s watch was that Google became a confirmed serial privacy violator. No sooner was the ink dry on the Buzz Consent Decree with the FTC, than Google was caught hacking around privacy settings on Apple’s Safari browser, which is on iPads and iPhones, and lying about its practices on the Google website. Google was fined $22.5 million by the FTC, pocket change to the Internet giant.

John SimpsonAlso on Whitten’s watch Google was fined $25,000 for obstructing the Federal Communications Commission’s investigation of Wi-Spy and just settled for a paltry $7 million with 38 states attorney general who were investigating. They’ve also got to make a YouTube video telling people how to improve Wi-Fi network security and have a Privacy Day for employees. That’s like asking the fox teach the chickens about how to make the coop safe.

It was also on Whitten’s watch that Google combined its privacy and data collection policies across its services without asking users’ consent first. European data protection officials led by the French are still investigating and action is likely this spring.
Whitten intends to stay on the job through June — not that it makes much difference to users — until her successor Lawrence You takes over.

I guess it makes sense a certain amount of sense that this got announced on April Fools’ Day. Privacy at Google is a joke. Google’s executives view the taps on the wrist the Internet giant has received for privacy violations as nothing more than the cost of doing business.

John M. Simpson is director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project. Follow Consumer Watchdog online on Facebook and Twitter.

Beware of Google’s Mouthpieces About Google Glasses

1:54 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Borg - Google Glasses

There are two ways to look at Google Glass, the eyeware-spyware the Internet Goliath is releasing later this year. Glass half full: it services us for convenience. Glass half empty: it services the corporation by allowing our eye glasses to record every public and private moment that goes into a digital profile in the cloud so Google can serve us up to the corporations that want to reach us.

In other words, are we wearing Google Glasses or are Google Glasses wearing us?
There’s no question that the privacy ramifications are catastrophic. Peeping Toms, child predators, and sadistic X-s will have the ultimate tool for chaos. The corporation has the ultimate tool to map our behavior so it can sell to our addictions, cravings and weaknesses almost as we are experiencing them. Walk by the bar and the Heineken pops onto your Glass.

Absent the “Do Not Track” standard Google opposes, the company will have a digital warehouse of private and public moments that inform it and any corporation willing to pay top dollar about exactly who we are and what we do. Google has the ultimate drone to map humanity for commercial gain in the guise of an Iphone you wear.
So it’s shocking to hear Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, a “contributor” to Marketplace radio, use an example on that show this morning that turns the Glass question toward protestors being able to prevent police abuse at a rally. Berkman is a major recipient of big bucks from Google, an important omission in the interview.

In some Google-jitsu, Zittrain said that people aren’t worried about Google spying on them, but us spying on each other.

“It’s not data collected by Google that will make people nervous,” Zittrain said. “But what other people will collect.”


That’s not what Consumer Watchdog’s polling says. Americans don’t want corporations tracking them. Google doesn’t want or respect a “Do Not Track” option for the public. That option to delete data is ever more critical if Google is going to collect the living images our life in its cloud and we cannot hit delete.

You’re likely to hear a lot of First Amendment voices weigh in for the Glass half-full theory in the coming days and months. Google spreads a lot of its money to civil libertarians who agree that Google’s data shouldn’t be subject to government subpoenas. But the truth is Google’s use of the data will in the end be more dangerous than the government’s, if we allow it to own the videos of our lives. That’s because its mission is commercial. History has taught us the drive for profit respects no social mores, ethical customs, or rule of law.

Glass opens a Pandora’s box for society that will forever change it unless the public gets the right to hit delete and turn on its “Do Not Track Me” option. If the video of our lives is allowed to live in Google’s cloud, life itself will forever be diminished by the commercial takeover of our vision. Who will program what our children see in their Glasses? Will the price of finding a map be the programming of mindless consumption? Will we see what Google doesn’t want us to see?

If Google gets control of what we see it can program how we see it. That is serious cause for the public to fear regardless of Google mouthpieces say.
Originally Posted on the Huffington Post on March 14, 2013. Posted by Jamie Court, author of The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell and President of Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Calling for Meaningful Wi-Spy Penalties Against Google

4:46 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog


Says State Attorneys General $7 Million Deal with Google Won’t Stop Company’s Serial Privacy Abuses

The $7 million deal announced today ending a multi-state investigation of the Google Wi-Spy scandal does virtually nothing to thwart the Internet giant’s repeated privacy violations, Consumer Watchdog said. The public interest group said Google should pay an amount that would affect its profits.

In addition to the $7 million to be divided among the 38 states and the District of Columbia that were involved in the investigation, the settlement deal provides that Google will create an educational campaign that features a YouTube video to teach consumers about protecting privacy on Wi-Fi networks.

“Asking Google to educate consumers about privacy is like asking the fox to teach the chickens how to ensure the security of their coop,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “The educational video will also drive consumers to the YouTube platform, where Google will just gather more data about them for its digital dossiers.”

Read the settlement with the state attorneys general here.

Google has become a serial privacy violator, Consumer Watchdog said. In the Wi-Spy case the company sucked up data including such things emails, passwords, and bank account numbers as its Street View cars photographed streets around the world. Before that the company exposed personal information of it users when it launched its unsuccessful “Buzz” social network. That privacy breach prompted a consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission. No sooner was the ink dry on the settlement, than Google violated it by hacking around the privacy settings on the Safari browser used on iPads, iPhones and other Apple devices.

“This settlement does nothing too stop Google as a serial privacy violator. The company now has a long history of violating users’ privacy, lying about it, apologizing, promising not to do it again, sometimes making a token penalty payment and then moving on to the next violation,” said Simpson. “The $7 million penalty is pocket change for Google; it’s clear the Internet giant sees fines like this as just the cost of doing business and not a very big cost at that.”

Consumer Watchdog Calls On FTC to Seek Do Not Track Legislation

2:16 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

photo spyphones.jpg

Consumer Watchdog Wednesday called on the Federal Trade Commission to ask Congress to pass Do Not Track legislation because “the self-regulatory effort to design Do Not Track is virtually dead in the water.”

In a letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz John M. Simpson, the nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group’s Privacy Project Director wrote:

“Almost a year ago with great fanfare in the media you said a Do Not Track mechanism would be in place by the end of last year. You and you colleagues opted to rely on a self-regulatory process to implement Do Not Track, but alluded to the possibility of legislation if that process failed. Not surprisingly the self-regulatory effort to design Do Not Track is virtually dead in the water. After a year nothing has changed for the consumer. You tried to use the bully pulpit, but the advertising industry did not heed your call. The time for words has passed; if you expect Do Not Track to be implemented, the Commission must endorse Do Not Track legislation now.”

Read Consumer Watchdog’s letter here

“As the Commission advocated in its report, Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change, a Do Not Track mechanism would offer people control over whether data about them was collected,” Simpson wrote.

Consumer Watchdog noted that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an Internet standards setting organization, has been trying to develop specifications about how the Do Not Track message would be sent and what the obligations would be for a website that receives it. “Talks have dragged on more than a year with weekly conference calls and six face-to-face meetings, while the W3C’s Tracking Protection Working Group has grown to 102 members,” Simpson wrote. “Another round of meetings is scheduled next month. Talks can at best be charitably described as stalled.”

“You and the Commission repeatedly put faith in self-regulatory efforts and predicted that a Do Not Track mechanism would be in place by the end of the year,” Simpson wrote. “Unfortunately that optimism has proved to be unwarranted.”

The letter concluded:

“The end of the year as passed. Your words have gone largely unheeded by the advertising industry. The bully pulpit has not brought about a Do Not Track standard. Lest your words be taken as empty threats and given the logjam in the World Wide Web Consortium process, the time for decisive action by the FTC has arrived. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, (D-WV) introduced a Do Not Track bill in the last session of Congress. We understand he intends to re-introduce the bill this session. We call on you and the entire Commission to endorse the urgent need for Do Not Track legislation. If nothing else, the threat of legislation could be the stick that prompts a recalcitrant advertising industry to stop its foot dragging and re-engage in real negotiations.”

The letter cited numerous times that Leibowitz had predicted the implementation of Do Not Track by the end of last year and raised the possibility of legislation if the effort failed. For instance, the letter noted:

“‘We are definitely at a critical point in whether folks will be able to come together and develop a real Do Not Track option for consumers,’ you told Politico in October. You said the lack of consensus was ‘encouraging the possibility of legislation — maybe not today, maybe not in the lame duck, but soon.’ You also told The New York Times, ‘It is time to drop some of the bluster and work toward compromise.’

“In November you used the bully pulpit again to tell Politico, ‘If by the end of the year or early next year, we haven’t seen a real Do Not Track option for consumers, I suspect the commission will go back and think about whether we want to endorse legislation.’”

Europe’s Antitrust Chief Talks Tough On Google

1:07 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

European Union

Google may have only received a tap on the wrist from the Federal Trade Commission when the agency closed the U.S. antitrust investigation without taking action against the Internet giant for skewing search results to favor its services, but it’s looking increasingly likely that Google will face strong action on the other side of the Atlantic.

The Financial Times reports that Google will have to change the way it presents search results or face antitrust charges for “diverting traffic.” Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia told the newspaper:

“We are still investigating, but my conviction is [Google] are diverting traffic. They are monetizing this kind of business, the strong position they have in the general search market and this is not only a dominant position, I think – I fear – there is an abuse of this dominant position.”

Almunia has told Google that it must make changes to address European concerns or that it will face a formal statement of objections. Late last year he warned that Google would have to offer remedies this month.

I think you can take Almunia’s strong statements Thursday to The Financial Times as a sign that the European Commission is serious. While he says he’d prefer a settlement, European law gives the antitrust enforcer a huge stick. After filing a formal statement of objections, the Commission can impose a fine amounting to 10 percent of Google’s revenue or about $4 billion. That’s almost as effective to getting executives attention as sending them to the slammer. Unlike the FTC, the European Commission doesn’t have to make its case in Court. It can simply impose the fine.

As The Financial Times headline read on one story about the situation, “EU Antitrust Chief Holds All the Aces.” Almunia hinted that the antitrust settlement may play out differently in Europe because the law is different. It’s also true that the Internet giant’s dominance in search is even greater in Europe at 90 percent of the market than the 70 percent share it commands in the United States.

And there is still a strong possibility of meaningful action in the United States. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is actively pursing a case. His staff has appropriately worked to obtain key Google documents that Google tried to claim were privileged and did not need to be turned over in response to Civil Investigative Demands. From all appearances the FTC staff was nowhere near as diligent in its investigation.

Posted by John M. Simpson. John is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

Our New Years Resolution

3:37 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Carmen Balber

What an inspiring 2012! Together, we exposed and stopped false MPG claims by automakers, shamed health insurance companies into lowering outrageous rate hikes and moved closer to the day when technology companies can’t collect and sell our private information online and on our phones without consent. This year we’ll continue these fights, and more.

Big things are going to happen in 2013, and we’re glad you’re here with us to see them through. We’ll be asking in the coming days your thoughts on what Consumer Watchdog’s priorities should be in 2013.

For now, here are some of our pledges for this year. We will:

What do you think of our resolutions? At Consumer Watchdog we know that when public opinion is on our side, we can make big things happen. So be on the lookout for our survey next week, and let us know your opinion on what our priorities should be in 2013.

Your ideas, actions and complaints were behind some of our biggest consumer protection victories. We need your input again to make this year as big as the last.

Happy New Year!
Posted by Carmen Balber, Executive Director of Consumer Watchdog.