Watchdog Group Questions Google’s Relationship with NSA

Tue, Feb 1, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Google is in hot water again — or it will be if Consumer Watchdog can persuade the public to ask Congress to take action [1] over the Google “Wi-Spy scandal.” Additionally, Consumer Watchdog published a report, Lost in the Cloud: Google and the US Government [2] [PDF], that highlights Google’s relationship with NSA and claims the search giant has also “inappropriately benefited” from close and secretive relationships with other government agencies.

    Google Street View cars spent three years collecting wireless data from millions of private users in 30 countries, information such as passwords, web browsing history and emails. Consumer Watchdog calls it the “largest wire-tapping scandal” the world has ever seen, yet Congress has not held any hearings. John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s Inside Google Project [3], said, “The details of the biggest privacy breach in history shouldn’t be settled in secret. This makes it clear why Google CEO Eric Schmidt needs to testify under oath before Congress about Wi-Spy.”

    While Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen coordinates a 40-state probe into the Google Wi-Fi incident, Consumer Watchdog wants Eric Schmidt to answers questions under oath at Congressional hearings. To spotlight the need for the hearings, Consumer Watchdog launched another satirical video that is displayed on a digital advertising truck in DC. This new animated satire, “Mr. Schmidt Goes to Washington” is the sequel to the “Don’t Be Evil?” video [4] released by Consumer Watchdog last fall.

    Furthermore, Consumer Watchdog sent a 32-page report [5], Lost in the Cloud: Google and the US Government, filled with details obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and interviews. The report claims that Google has “inappropriately benefited” from close ties to the government. It alleges that Google’s influence with the Obama Administration, DHS, FCC, NASA, U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, Department of Defense, and NSA has helped shield Google and caused “insufficient federal action on Google’s ‘Wi-Spy’ debacle.”

    The report asks Congress to look into “Air Google,” asking how NASA’S Moffett Airfield has been “turned into a taxpayer-subsidized private airport for Google executives.” It also states that Google’s Washington revenue comes more from the Pentagon than the cloud. It asks why Google was the first company that received government certification for its apps, even though Microsoft and were also being considered for the cloud. Other questions pertain to the federal government and law enforcement’s reliance on Google for eye-in-the-sky surveillance [6].

    Consumer Watchdog sent a letter [7] [PDF] asking Chairman of the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform committee Darrell Issa to look into the “questionable” and “secretive” relationship between Google and NSA. Consumer Watchdog wrote, “The search giant has a legitimate need to cooperate with the government’s mammoth and secretive code breaking agency in its efforts to defend the integrity of US computer networks. But NSA also has legal power to force Google to hand over the private information of its users. How Google executives handle this potentially conflicted relationship is largely unknown: neither Google nor the NSA are talking.”

    Rep. Issa has recently been in the news for his request to all government agencies for detailed lists of the hundreds of thousands of citizens, journalists, and anyone else that requested FOIA copies of federal government documents in the last five years, reported the FOIA blog [8]. Issa calls it a way to promote transparency.

    It is interesting to me that Consumer Watchdog has focused on Google privacy practices while Microsoft, Facebook and other companies have not come under fire by the advocacy group. Although Consumer Watchdog claims to be trying to hold Google to its “Don’t Be Evil” motto and wants the search giant to set the “gold standard for privacy,” a Google spokeswoman questioned Consumer Watchdog’s objectivity as it works closely with Google’s rivals.

    Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson told PCWorld [9] that the company is not funded by Microsoft. “We don’t have any relationship with Microsoft at all. We don’t take any of their money.”

    While I’d like to see Schmidt answers questions under oath about Wi-Fi information collected by Google Street View, I also hope Consumer Watchdog keeps an eye on the privacy practices of Microsoft, Facebook and other companies that handle mass amounts of consumer data.


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