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Industry group raises alarm over Google's changing ad policy

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Two weeks after Google announced it would no longer scan student email accounts under their Google Apps for Education service for advertising purposes, an industry group is raising questions about whether government users of Google have been unwittingly sharing information with marketers.

SafeGov.org, a cloud computing advocacy group backed by prominent tech companies including Microsoft and Lockheed Martin, is concerned that Google might have misled federal users into thinking the content of inbound and outbound emails sent using Google Apps were scanned by the company for advertising purposes.

Google has been in hot water over a California data-mining lawsuit that includes allegations that the company was scanning emails in student accounts to create advertising profiles that could be used to target users on other sites. As part of its response, Google disabled an advertising option on its Education and other enterprise services, including Google Apps for Government.

"We've permanently removed all ads scanning in Gmail for Apps for Education, which means Google cannot collect or use student data in Apps for Education services for advertising purposes," Bram Bout, director of Google for Education, wrote in an April 30 blog post. He added, "We’re also making similar changes for all our Google Apps customers, including Business, Government and for legacy users of the free version, and we’ll provide an update when the rollout is complete."

SafeGov president Jeff Gould calls the news about Google Apps for Government a "bombshell," saying that, "there are a lot of federal CIOs who took Google's word that they were not conducting the kind of commercial data mining they do in consumer space."

Google Apps for Government, used by the U.S. Army, the Interior Department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the General Services Administration, and other federal agencies, is a suite of cloud-based enterprise tools including email, calendar, and document processing that correspond closely with Google's free services. Government users don't see ads inside their email, but Gould says that the Google announcement is a strong indication that the company was creating and storing profiles that could be used for marketing purposes. "Google’s announcement leaves many important questions unanswered," Gould wrote in a May 15 blog post.

According to a Google spokesperson, who did not wish to be quoted by name, the advertising scans are part of a larger technological toolkit that inspect the contents of user email accounts for malware, spam and spellcheck, and allow certain search and sorting functionality to work. Google engineers are working to unlink the advertising scans from the other utilities. The goal of the April 30 announcement was "to make very clear that we didn’t' have any intention to serve ads," the spokesperson said.

SafeGov has in the past advocated  a separate terms of service agreement with government users to preclude such advertising and tracking. Gould said that concerns over data privacy could be a competitive edge among enterprise software providers serving the government market.

"We think all these providers, Microsoft, IBM, Google, and all these large cloud vendors working in the federal space need to have the highest standards of privacy and data protection. If we can spur competition among vendors over privacy, we're in favor of that," Gould said.

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Reader comments

Fri, May 16, 2014

Looks like Google learned something from the Chinese; or was it the NSA?

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