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L.A. Council committee signs off on Google email plan with caveats

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Wed, Aug 12, 2009 at 5:10 pm

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The Los Angeles City Council’s Information Technology and General Services (ITGS) Committee on Tuesday approved a plan to transfer the city’s email to a system run by Internet giant Google.

But the time period to change as many as 30,000 email users to the so-called "cloud computing" system as been lengthened.  In addition ITGS committee member Bernard Parks outlined issues he wants resolved before the plan is considered by Council’s Budget and Finance Committee. Parks is chairman of that panel.

Tony Cardenas chaired the ITGS meeting and third committee member Herbert J. Wesson was absent.

Originally the proposal to award the contract to Computer Sciences Corp. to implement the change called for the switch to be made by the end of this calendar year.  It would also offer city computer users other Google applications and some employees could possibly subsitute them for Microsoft software. Some cost savings were expected because the city would not need licenses for users of its current email system next year. Now the plan calls for full implementation by the end of the fiscal year, June  30, 2010.

I testified against adoption of the plan, saying that Google hasn’t adequately described its security provisions and noted that there appears to be nothing in the contract that would even require Google to notify the city if security is compromised. Under a cloud computing system all the data would be on Google’s servers, not on city equipment.

Parks told representatives of the Information Technology Agency and City Attorney that he expects a proposed  final contract to come before his committee.  The version before ITGS Tuesday was still a draft and being negotiated. He said he wants the Information Technology Agency to provide "real dollar" estimates of costs and possible savings.

Noting that the Los Angeles Police Department still has concerns about the system’s security, Parks wants to know how those issues will be resolved.  He added that ITA needs to talk with other police agencies in the city, such as the Airport Police, to see if they share LAPD’s concerns.

If LAPD’s concerns can’t be met, a possible solution would be to move only 17,000 of the city’s users to Google’s cloud.  LAPD’s 13,000 users would stay on their current system.

Finally, Parks told ITA general manager Randi Levin that she needs "to make the case that the new system is not just nice to have, but a necessity."

Cloud computing may offer a solution to some of the city’s information technology needs. Probably the best solution would be a hybrid system. But whatever the solution, there needs to be careful evaluation and assurances that a myriad of security and privacy issues are resolved.

So far Google has offered a "trust us" approach, as they recite their "Don’t be evil" mantra.  They need to be held to a meaningful standard and accountable if they don’t deliver.

Council’s Budget and Finance Committee under Parks’ chairmanship takes up the plan next.  That’s a good place to demand necessary and explicit written guarantees from Google.  Under the plan the Internet giant will actually control the city’s data, not Computer Sciences Corp.

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This post was written by:

John M. Simpson

- who has written 362 posts on Inside Google.

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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