Agencies that use Google services at risk of data-mining, tech group says

Correction: The article incorrectly described Jeff Gould, a technology consultant affiliated with SafeGov.org, as a former employee of the federal Office of Management and Budget. This version has been corrected.

November 1, 2012

The privacy policies of Google and other tech firms could allow them to mine personal data held by government agencies that use cloud-based e-mail, database and document services, an industry group warned.

The group, SafeGov.org, a consortium of industry experts promoting safe government use of cloud services, raised the concern as Google has sought to defuse controversy over changes to its privacy policy that allow for more extensive tracking of consumers.

SafeGov.org first highlighted this issue in January after Google announced plans to consolidate its privacy policy across more than 60 services, including Gmail and YouTube, allowing tracking of users as they move among those sites. The group recently renewed its call for greater safeguards after European data-protection commissioners last month identified significant legal shortcomings in the policy and called for changes.

Google officials say the changes to its privacy policy do not affect the bundle of productivity software it sells to governments, which are governed by contractual provisions.

Privacy groups have long expressed concern about how companies gather and use personal information for targeting ads or other commercial purposes. Safegov.org favors the creation of privacy policies written specifically to prohibit data mining when government agencies use cloud-based services from Google and others.

“The privacy policy as written gives them unlimited ability to mine [data] as they see fit,” said Jeff Gould of SafeGov.org, an IT consultant. (His clients include Microsoft, which also is one of 17 corporate “partners” of SafeGov.org and a competing provider of cloud-based services to governments.)

Google officials say their contracts with government entities include rules on how data may be used. “As always, Google will maintain our enterprise customers’ data in compliance with the confidentiality and security obligations provided to their domain,” said Amit Singh, vice president of Google Enterprise, in a statement, repeating a comment made in January.

Those contracts with government entities can be public documents, though agencies sometimes do not make their specific terms, such as privacy policies, easily available.

The federal government has pushed in recent years to move data to cloud-based services, which officials say are cheaper and more reliable. The General Services Administration has taken a leading role in that effort, moving its employees to Gmail and adopting other services from the company.

The agency’s contract with Google has a privacy policy that’s more restrictive than offered to ordinary consumers and guarantees the security of data, said spokesman Dan Cruz. “GSA assesses compliance through control testing and periodic audits,” he said.

SafeGov.org says its concerns extend to state and local governments, as well as schools and other public institutions. “It’s just not appropriate to have data mining,” Gould said. “If they’re not doing that, then let them say that.”

Craig Timberg is a national technology reporter for The Post.
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