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Tough questions needed on Google email plan for L.A.

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Mon, Aug 10, 2009 at 9:08 pm

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A Los Angeles City Council committee on Tuesday takes up a plan to switch the city government’s 30,000 email users to a system run by Google.  Members of the Information Technology and General Services (ITGS) Committee need to ask tough questions about the proposed deal.

The contract under consideration is with Computer Sciences Corp. to manage the switch to a "cloud computing" system run by Google.  The most important part of the deal, the actual terms of service with Google are presented as Appendix J to the CSC contract.

Certainly selecting a vendor to manage a switch is important.  More important though, I think, is what happens to the city’s data if it’s moved to Google’s servers.

The Google Terms of Service (TOS) presented with the CSC contract have been modified somewhat from the usual off-the-shelf TOS.  Usually customers are told that their data can be stored on any Google server anywhere in the world.  In the TOS for Los Angeles, Google pledges to use servers only in the continental United States.

The Internet giant also says it will "adhere to reasonable security standards no less protective than the security standards at facilities where Google stores and processes its own information of a similar type."

The ITGS committee members need to ask what those standards are and point out that some city data — for example data compiled by the Police Department — is unlike any data of Google’s. Some city data requires a higher lever of security than Google’s proprietary information.

Committee members also need to ask what happens if there is a security breach.  From what I can see in the TOS, Google isn’t even required to notify the city if one occurs.

I’d suggest Google should pay a penalty if there is a breach.

Cloud computing may be the wave of the future, but it is foolhardy to embrace Google’s service without due diligence. Consider this warning from Simon Dumenco, media columnist for Advertising Age:

"Google’s cloud has the potential to blanket us — smother us — in ways much more systemic and potentially apocalyptic than Microsoft’s desktop software monopoly ever did."

So far, Google’s essential message to the city is:  Our motto is ‘Don’t be evil,’ trust us.

ITGS committee members, Tony Cardenas, Bernard C. Parks and Herb J. Wesson, need to ask: Why should we?


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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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