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FTC To Investigate Google’s Data Security Practices

March 18, 2009

An online privacy and civil liberties group urged regulators to investigate the sufficiency of Google’s security safeguards after the company unintentionally released consumers’ private information earlier this month.

In a complaint filed with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Tuesday, the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) blamed Google’s practices in its cloud computing services, which stores user-generated documents and other personal data on the company’s servers.

The group called on the FTC to prohibit Google from offering its cloud computing services until the company has enacted certain safeguards.

In a statement, Google said it had received a copy of the complaint but had not yet conducted a detailed review.

“We are highly aware of how important our users’ data is to them and take our responsibility very seriously,” Google said, adding that it has extensive procedures, polices and technologies in place to guarantee the highest levels of data protection.

On March 7, the company said a bug in its online productivity software, Google Docs, triggered a small number of users to inadvertently share their personal documents with others.  The company said the glitch, which has since been repaired, affected 0.05 percent of the total number of documents, and only pertained to people who had previously shared online documents with others.

“The Google Docs data breach highlights the hazards of Google’s inadequate security practices, as well as the risks of cloud computing services generally,” said EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg in a statement, adding that there was  “ample” precedent for the FTC to initiate an investigation.

EPIC argued that Google’s cloud computing services have been increasingly susceptible to data breaches, despite the company’s claims that it secures the documents on its servers.

The complaint also said that Google stores and transmits documents in plain text, rather than encrypting the data the way some other cloud computing services do.

Google has launched a number of cloud-based software services from spreadsheets to email.  Last week, the company unveiled its Google Voice service, which transcribes voice mails and routes those messages to a user’s email inbox.

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