Japanese Officials Google Privacy Settings
July 12, 2013

Japanese Officials Get Tough Lesson In Google Privacy Settings

Enid Burns for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Most people worry about their privacy settings on Google, but government officials and journalists in Japan learned their lesson the hard way when they realized that privacy settings on Google Groups had been overlooked, leaving documents and exchanges to be leaked.

The government was alerted to the fact they used the default settings on Google Groups, allowing public access to discussion threads. Privacy settings should have been adjusted to allow only members to see information posted to Groups.

The environment ministry was one the government departments that leaked information, according to the AFP.

Among leaked documents and discussions were internal memos including negotiating positions for an international treaty.  The discussions included contents of meetings with officials from other nations, the Japan News reported.

Over 6,000 cases where information from public and private organizations, including hospital records, was found to be publicly available by Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. The publication, however, was one of the organizations that failed to lock down privacy settings to members only. The Yomirui, which is said to be the world's biggest-selling newspaper, said its journalists had been using Google Groups with no privacy restrictions. The oversight exposed draft stories and interview transcripts to any internet user who visited the Google Groups site.

Google Groups is a forum where people can set up discussions and exchange documents and opinions. The site is described as a "searchable archive of more than 700 million Usenet postings from a period of more than 20 years," it says on a Google search results page.

"Google Groups allows users to establish or join discussions on any subject, which can be accessed either by email or through the web," AFP reports. Groups set up by Japanese government agencies, Japanese media organizations and other companies could be a needle in a haystack where someone searching the archive would have to know what they are looking for, but the discussions and documents were there for anybody to stumble upon.

The Environment ministry was just one government agency that suffered from this oversight. Three government agencies were identified in this scandal, Japan News reported, while it was the Environment Ministry that noticed its error. "Our security awareness was weak," a ministry official told The Yomiuri Shimbun.

In addition to three government agencies and The Yomiuri Shimbun, seven medical institutions and nursing care facilities used Google Groups allowing discussions and documents to be revealed, including medical information on more than 300 patients.

"In addition, personal information such as health checkup records of high school students, data on the home environments of middle school students, a list of names of supporters of a political party and persons registered in an alumni directory was also disclosed. The data leak affected more than 5,000 people," the Japan News reported.

Precautions are being taken by the Health, Labor and Welfare ministry, which will require prefectural governments to investigate the medical and nursing care institutions affected by this breach. Each institution will be instructed to be careful about using free services, the Japan News reported.