Web & communication software

Google Celebrates Data Privacy Day…Really?

Artwork: Chip Taylor
Yes, Data Privacy Day exists, in case you weren't aware, and Google is trumpeting the special occasion with comforting words on its Public Policy Blog. You may find it odd that Google is banging the privacy drum -- after all, the search giant is a personal-information-collecting brute, a company routinely excoriated by consumer advocates and government officials for its lackadaisical attitude toward personal privacy.

And who could forget the creepozoid comments from Google's soon-to-be-ex CEO Eric Schmidt, who told CNN last year that people who don't want their homes photographed for Google Street View could "just move." Schmidt also passed along this comforting gem to The Atlantic: "We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about." Yikes.

Of course, Schmidt has since been kicked upstairs to "executive chairman," and Google co-founder Larry Page will take over day-to-day operations in April. So has Google changed its views on personal privacy, or is Data Privacy Day merely a PR ploy?

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"On this Data Privacy Day, a major focus for Google is on creating ways for people to manage and protect their data. We've built tools like the Google Dashboard, the Ads Preferences Manager and encrypted search, and we're always working on further ideas for providing transparency, control and security to empower our users," writes Alma Whitten, Google's director of privacy, in a Friday blog post.

Just this week, Google released a Chrome browser extension that lets users permanently opt-out of ad-tracking cookies, Whitten adds. And soon it'll expand the availability of its optional two-step verification, which requires Google account holders to have access to their phone (in addition to a user name and password) when they sign in.

While these changes do give end users more say over what information they share with Google, they won't silence the growing throng of privacy advocates angered by the search company's voracious appetite for personal data.

Earlier this week, a privacy researcher at Harvard Business School announced that a bug in Google Toolbar violated the product's privacy policy by sending details about some users' Web surfing activities to Google. Also this week, advocacy group Consumer Watchdog called for a Congressional investigation of Google's "secret" relationship with U.S. National Security Agency.

In early January, South Korean police said Google Street View was guilty of gathering personal information illegally. And don't forget the 2010 study by university researchers, which showed that some Android apps are collecting user information without, you know, asking if it could.

Numerous other examples date back a few years, of course. So is Google serious about being up front on the privacy front? Let us know.

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter (@jbertolucci) or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com and follow Today @ PCWorld on Twitter.

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