Google’s not-so-private growing pains

Just a couple of years ago, looking up the definition for the word “Google” in the dictionary would have been an exercise doomed to failure.  Yet few people today exhibit any hesitancy in using “Google” not only as a noun to describe the world’s number one internet search engine, but just as easily to employ it as a verb. 

Google is one the most important communications phenomena of this early 21st Century.  The ever-increasing speed with which Google is able to sort and display for the computer inquisitor answers to the questions he or she poses, is matched only by the awesome depth of those responses – from the mundane to the truly exotic.  

Yet, just like major technological innovations before it, Google in many ways is paying a steep price for its success.  How the company deals with these problems – particularly those involving privacy concerns — will to a large extent define its success in the coming biennium, in the marketplace and with government regulators and Capitol Hill lawmakers. 

Other technology companies in recent years have faced similar threats to their operations; caused also by both mistakes the companies made as well as challenges from without.  How these other companies responded to privacy-related problems might hold important lessons for Google. 

In the fall of 2004, the large, data-brokering firm, fell victim to a serious security breach.  A handful of criminals gained access to and stole a large quantity of credit reports and other personal information on consumers maintained by ChoicePoint.  Instead of bobbing and weaving, and trying to avoid the problem presented by the security breach, or sticking its corporate head in the sand and pretending it wasn’t there, ChoicePoint tackled the privacy problem up front and decisively. 

CEO Derek Smith admitted publicly the company could have done better, and announced a series of remedial steps.  Most important among these responses was the hiring of Carol DiBattiste as the Chief Privacy Officer.  She was given a clear mandate put privacy front and center; to identify privacy problems facing the company, develop solutions, and implement remedies.  She was given direct access to Smith and the company’s entire board of directors. 

The company reached out proactively to the Congress and state legislators clamoring for all manner of regulatory retaliation; and it began a dialog with non-governmental privacy organizations that were at the time gearing up to blast the data-brokering giant.  ChoicePoint’s message to all these entities was the same – the company was serious about privacy and would take steps quickly and substantively to not only remedy the breach it suffered, but also to develop “best practices” for the industry to protect the privacy of the information entrusted to it. 

Granted, ChoicePoint had other incentives to get its privacy act together – not the least of which were a class action lawsuit resulting from the 2004 data breach, and actions by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission.  However, the comprehensive and transparent manner in which it addressed these problems resulted in the company emerging stronger and more highly regarded than before the incident. 

Google recently has been stung by a number of privacy-breach allegations, which, while not at this time a threat to its existence, already have caused a number of governments here and abroad to call for significant restrictions on its current and future operations to gather data. In response, Google has named a director of privacy – Alma Whitten – but at least to this point, has failed to endow the post with sufficient and unquestioned horsepower for its occupant to make and enforce real changes to Google’s privacy practices.  

Like ChoicePoint before it, Google is now clearly within the gun sights of federal regulators and congressional investigators.  It might do well to borrow a page from ChoicePoint’s playbook; keeping in mind the best defense is a good offense.

21 comments Add your comment

Kling

November 15th, 2010
7:33 am

Barr should google “elements of style”, and quit pummeling the reader with overpunctuation, (the punk).

I’ve always said that the only difference between the Third Reich and the GOP is that the GOP doesn’t have an umlaut key on it’s google pad thingie. But their messages read the same, anyway. Do you know how many grammatical errors you have to make to accomplish that?

Aw, I don’t wanna talk about it.
.

Eric

November 15th, 2010
8:13 am

What I resent about Google is being able to look up someone’s address and phone number with such ease. Why are they allowed to be in cahoots as with the phone companies? Also, I’m not thrilled about satellite photos of everyone’s homes and street. Hasn’t this gone too far? Where’s the backlash? But Mr. Barr’s article suggests this may be on the way. Thank goodness!

SP

November 15th, 2010
8:15 am

Geez, only one comment and Godwin’s law is invoked. Kling – Google it so you can see what it means

Ragnar Danneskjöld

November 15th, 2010
8:51 am

Google has bought and paid for the American leftist politicians. They are not at risk until conservatives come to power.

nelson

November 15th, 2010
8:54 am

Poll after poll confirms that the American public relishes its privacy. The potential loss of privacy ranks as a major concern.
The Transparent Society by David Brin. “The more we try to protect privacy, the more we lose it. Accountability makes us all equal in a transparent society. “if some company wishes to collect data on consumers let them do it, but only on condition that the top officers in the firm must post exactly the same information about themselves.’

Think about that the next time you sign up for a grocery store “bonus card” handing out your telephone or SS# or mumble the phrase”what do I have to hide?”

Al Gore

November 15th, 2010
9:12 am

What’s up Bob…couldn’t find a good “nanny state” story to write about?

carlosgvv

November 15th, 2010
9:13 am

Google is here to stay and so are the increasing privacy issues. Like so many other things in America, this problem will only get worse over time and Congress will do little or nothing to correct it. If we want the privacy of the pre-internet days we will have to go back to the pre-internet days and I doubt that will happen.

j

November 15th, 2010
9:53 am

unless you are engaging in illegal activity you have nothing to worry about. just stay away from the porn sites and no one will know about your deviant behavior. :)

paleo-neo-Carlinist

November 15th, 2010
10:35 am

Americans can expect, demand and accept the promise of “privacy” from the 5th Amendment all they want, and the “carrot” of the Bill of Rights has proved useful to policy wags and the plutocrats who own them. but at the end of the day, it is “the stick” that gets results. it is not possible (or in the interest of government) to ensure personal privacy. it is the “promise” or illusion of a respect for “rights” that is key. all the “Founding Fathers” stuff is just the make-up for the kabuki artists on stage.

paleo-neo-Carlinist

November 15th, 2010
10:37 am

excuse me, 4th amendment

GoogleOver

November 15th, 2010
10:42 am

Choicepoint doesn’t exist anymore. How’s that for strategy?

carlosgvv

November 15th, 2010
11:10 am

paleo-neo-Carlinist

I wish I could argue with you but unfortunately what you say is all too true and is just the tip of the iceberg.

markie mark

November 15th, 2010
11:53 am

thanks sp…learn something new and relevant everyday…

Jefferson

November 15th, 2010
1:17 pm

Tax evaders, living in the US, lining their pockets in the US, skipping taxes by off shore. Scum.

A. J. C . Smith

November 15th, 2010
1:27 pm

You can look out your window and see your neighbor’s house, but you think it is a breach of security to do the same thing on a computer? What about a drawing? Would that mnake you feel better? An etching? Something in plain view is in plain view, for crying out loud.

get out much?

November 15th, 2010
1:49 pm

I wonder why Mr. Barr is writing about Google instead of state governments that regularly sell information such as driver’s license registrations to direct marketing companies.

[...] Google’s not-so-private growing pains [...]

Kling

November 16th, 2010
7:37 am

Bob Barr is………………..RIGHT!! Do you good folks realize that if you change only two letters from the word, “1984″, you get the word Google? That novel was so presieint, so forboding, so omni-editorial, you know? I’m finally realizing what Barr has been warning us about since he read Chicken Little: any monopoly, whether it be corporate or governmental, (but then I repeat myself), is a danger to freedom.

Google does not deserve to be a privately owned corp. it is now an obvious public utility as vital to modern living and human survival as a sewer pipe.

We must nationalize the internet, for it is FOR US ALL, not just some college fratboys who invented it to get laid and got lucky instead. Someone had to invent sewer pipes too. I suppose if someone would let them, a “capitalist” would copyright turds, and then only a handful of people would own all the crap too. Don’t you see what’s happening with this obsolete notion that capitalism justifes the means coming out the end? (ior something?)

Come on. Who’s with me?

Okay, besides my mom.

david

November 17th, 2010
4:54 pm

rachej

November 18th, 2010
10:32 am

nelson

November 19th, 2010
11:31 am

47.6 million is “chump change”, I am surprised that Atlanta would even consider it. It is a feeble attempt by President Obama to have Atlanta vote for him in the next election. Atlanta has the opportunity to stand tall and say” keep your money, we are a self sufficient entity and want our automity as a self supporting municipality.

Georgia is tooooooo proud to take gratuities from Uncle Sam. “Thats it, get it done”, if Atlanta wants a 2.6 mile street car named “Tara” there is plenty of labor right there.

get it done, I am coming down there and want to see the sights.