Google 'taken by surprise' by privacy objections to Street View
The Guardian, Josh Halliday
Google's newly appointed director of privacy has admitted the internet giant was "taken by surprise" by concerns over its Street View mapping product and has generally given its users too many "unpleasant surprises" in recent months.
Alma Whitten, one of Google's longest-standing privacy and security experts, today said the company had "taken to heart" concerns raised about its Street View service, which adds panoramic street-level photographs to Google Maps.
Google installed Whitten late last week as privacy director of its engineering and product divisions, following intense scrutiny of the company's ambitious mapping project in a number of countries including the UK.
The UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has said it will reinvestigate data collected by Google's Street View cars, which the company has admitted include some users' emails and passwords.
"The main focus is to rebuild trust. There have been more unpleasant surprises than we would have liked in the past period and it's definitely a very big focus of mine to make sure that doesn't happen again," Whitten told the Guardian yesterday.
"We're very aware that our business is based on the trust of users and if damaged [then] that's the worst thing we could do," said Whitten, adding that the company would now place more emphasis on inventing "privacy controls as fast as the products we invent them for".
Street View has been accused of invading privacy since it debuted in five US cities – New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and Denver – in May 2007. Although the photographs it uploads to the internet are taken of public spaces, complainants and privacy activists say the product is a gift for those with malicious intent and that being photographed on the site should be operated on an opt-in, rather than an opt-out basis.
Google, for its part, says an opt-in system would be unworkable and that it goes to great lengths to protect those who do not wish to be shown online. Approximately 3% of the population of 20 German cities due to be photographed on Street View opted out when offered the opportunity, the company revealed last week.
"There is a degree to which the company has been taken by surprise by the Street View concerns," said Whitten, who has a global role but will be based in London. "It's something that we've taken to heart, how differently people have reacted to it across cultures. We need to make sure we're listening and have our eyes open to it, definitely.
"It's an ongoing goal for us as the company's products continue to evolve. We do want to make sure that we have thought things through and we don't want to frighten users when products are launched – we want surprises to be pleasant ones."
Based at Google's modern offices in Victoria, London, 44-year-old Whitten will lead a significantly expanded team of engineers and product managers on controls such as the Google dashboard, which houses a user's privacy settings on one single page for easier use.
Google has also said that it will send all employees on a new "information awareness programme", beginning in December, and a new compliance process will be added to the product review setup.
While such measures are driven by Google, others have come about as the result of pressure by governments and privacy campaigners in individual countries.
In Germany, Google responded to an unprecedented level of public debate around the internet and privacy prompted by the impending Street View launch by offering an opportunity for members of the public to opt out of being photographed on the site. This offer was taken up by 244,000 German households. In Italy, regulators said Google must widely advertise where its mapping cars are going at least three days in advance.
"The important thing is that we remain an ambitious company built around giving everybody universal access to information that will help them. [It's important that] we don't have to tone down that ambition," Whitten said.
"We want to be equally ambitious about having good privacy controls and coming up with new, out-of-the-box ways to solve some of these problems, so we want – as much as possible – not to back down on what is a founding principle for this company.
"For me, it comes back to data and the challenge of Google explaining what we do with it, what our intent is. Some of that is rocket science, so we do need to be able to explain rocket science – it's a core responsibility that we do a better and better job of technically explaining these things."
Whitten, who published her PhD – titled "Why Johnny can't encrypt" – on the usability of online security mechanisms in 2004, joined Google when "it was just a white web page with a search box in the middle", one year before the company floated on the stock market and long before the launch of Gmail and Street View. "In some ways, it's changed a lot since then, in others ways not at all," she said.
Whitten argued that misconceptions about Google's services, for one, have been ever present. "There are lots of things people think we do that we don't," Whitten added. "The biggest is people thinking we use all these kinds of data to track people individually – and somehow we have data that we're selling to people. People don't really understand how Google makes money – when we try demystify that, most of the time people understand."
Although Whitten has been in charge of looking at privacy issues for Google's engineering team for two years, the new role – not to mention ongoing legal investigations – presents new challenges.
"My responsibility ultimately is to protect the privacy of Google users," she said. "In the coming months I'll be hammering out the details [of plans outlined in last week's blog post], and continue doing work with the Dashboard and some of the other things we've got in the pipeline. Really, it's to make sure that we get better at explaining rocket science."
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