Cloud

Industry group raises alarm over Google's changing ad policy

eye in the sky

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.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the About.com online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.

Featured

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1996, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

  • Shutterstock image.

    Merged IT modernization bill punts on funding

    A House panel approved a new IT modernization bill that appears poised to pass, but key funding questions are left for appropriators.

  • General Frost

    Army wants cyber capability everywhere

    The Army's cyber director said cyber, electronic warfare and information operations must be integrated into warfighters' doctrine and training.

  • Rising Star 2013

    Meet the 2016 Rising Stars

    FCW honors 30 early-career leaders in federal IT.

Reader comments

Fri, May 16, 2014

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

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group