Google pledges quest for tighter privacy controls

JERUSALEM Tue Oct 26, 2010 5:48pm BST

People ride their bikes past Google Inc. headquarters in Mountain View, California, May 8, 2008. REUTERS/Kimberly White

People ride their bikes past Google Inc. headquarters in Mountain View, California, May 8, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Kimberly White

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Google Inc is "building stronger controls" to safeguard privacy, a senior executive said on Tuesday after the search engine giant's admission to inadvertently gathering emails and passwords across the globe.

Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, told reporters at a conference on Internet security he was "puzzled" that users had made scant use of privacy controls made available on the site months ago, and Google would try to improve them.

"We are building stronger controls," Fleischer said, adding that developers were seeking to construct a "privacy design document" to bar any abuses of user information.

Google said in a blog published on its website on Friday that its "Street View" cars around the world had accidentally collected more personal data than previously thought, opening the door to new potential probes.

The breach had been discovered by regulators in Germany, and Canada's privacy watchdog has also charged Google with violating the rights of thousands of Canadians.

When asked whether he envisaged any further legal steps against the company, Fleischer replied Google had been "very clear" that none of the data gathered accidentally had been "looked at."

He said "a number" of prosecutors in other countries had looked at the case and already dismissed it, citing Spain and New Zealand as examples.

EARLY WARNINGS

He said Google had warned previously of the prospect of unintentional gathering of "fragmentary" information, alluding to the company's admission in May that its cars that take panoramic pictures of cities across the world had collected data from unsecured wireless networks in more than 30 countries.

The information gathered was typically limited to fragments of unencrypted data because the cars collecting it were always moving and their wireless equipment automatically changed channels about five times a second, Google has said.

Fleischer said Google would now "take a look at all our privacy policies to strengthen them, to learn the lessons of that mistake and to reduce the chances of something like that ever happening again."

He presented a series of privacy measures already in place on the Google site, such as an ad preference manager installed in the past year that provides subscribers with the option of choosing which advertisements would pop up on their screens.

Tens of thousands of people view that page each week, but only one in seven of what amounts to an already small pool of Google users actually opts to change a setting, Fleischer said.

"I am puzzled why more people don't use more of the privacy controls," Fleischer added. He wondered whether "people feel comfortable with the status quo" or if the application needed improvement to make it easier to access.

Despite the "endless debates" about leaked IP addresses, Fleischer said, "maybe the average user is not really that focussed on it, they're more focussed on the embarrassing party photo."

(Editing by Michael Shields)