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Google toolbar privacy glitch shows need for tech recalls and rules

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Wed, Jan 27, 2010 at 11:46 am

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Harvard Professor Ben Edelman has just revealed that Google’s toolbar sent information about consumers’ web activity back to the Internet giant’s servers even when they thought they had disabled the toolbar.

Edelman deserves credit for catching Google and documenting the flaw in this excellent article.

As PCWorld reports Google said it’s fixing the problem, as well they should. But the incident raises bigger questions. Google apparently knew about the problem for sometime before Edelman revealed it. That’s why they were able to rush out a fix.

Why were they silent about this obvious invasion of consumer privacy until Edelman revealed it?

Just as owners are notified when a car is recalled, computer users should be notified when their privacy is breached. The Federal Trade Commission needs to establish rules requiring notification when "privacy recalls" are necessary.

It shouldn’t be a problem for Google; they would have already gathered the IP addresses and should be able to send the message to affected users. And, as Edelman suggests, any toolbar user should have the right to delete from Google’s servers any information gathered while the glitch was in effect. The FTC should insist on that, too.

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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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