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Too instrusive

February 22, 2010

In its latest attack against internet giant Google, the German government says the company's new social networking service, Buzz, blatantly disregards the privacy of users.

A large Google sign is shown at a Google booth
Google says it is changing the settings on its Buzz toolImage: AP

Buzz is a social networking and messaging tool designed to integrate into Google's email service Gmail. It enables users to distribute pictures, links, videos and documents in real time and to share them with all connected friends. As such, it competes with the popular short messaging service Twitter and with mobile geo location functions which show the user's location on Google Maps. The default setting on the tool publicly discloses a list of the names of Gmail contacts that the user has most frequently emailed or chatted with.

It's this last feature that has privacy advocates up in arms. Critics say users who fail to disable this feature - or don't realize they have to - can have sensitive information about themselves and their contacts revealed publically.

German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner told news magazine "Focus" over the weekend that Buzz constituted "a massive intrusion of privacy."

"It shocks me when a corporation does not even respect the private data of its customers and uninvolved third parties," Aigner said, comparing the service to a video store advertising lists of all its customers' choices.

The minister called on Google to explain to all users exactly how the new service works and what they can do to protect their privacy.

The US-based internet giant has reportedly been swamped with complaints about privacy violations after launching Buzz earlier this month. Google has said it would change the default setting on Buzz to disable the tool from automatically sending updates of users' contacts and instead recommend that users add frequent contacts to their network of people able to view their Buzz messages.

Google criticized for Street View

The criticism of Buzz comes in the midst of a discussion about Google's other available tool, Street View. Only a few weeks ago Aigner warned that the German government was considering legal action to stop the service from showing pictures taken of cities and streets over fears these could invade residents' privacy.

On February 22, Google is expected to address these concerns and show the practical use of the service in an information presentation in Berlin. The consumer protection ministry expects Google to reveal how and where the images are going to be saved and what private data will be linked to these images.

Aigner and other consumer protection and privacy advocates have criticized Google for not informing people and requesting permission of residents before streets were photographed. The consumer protection ministry has said Google needs to actively inform people about their right to file objections and demand that images be made unrecognizable if they wish.

The ministry offers a downloadable form on its website for citizens who want to file a complaint with Google. According to an interview with Aigner in the "Hamburger Abendblatt", "many people have filed an objection, because they don't want to be put on display for the entire digital world to see them."

Google plans to launch its complete Street View service this year, offering 360-degree panorama images of cities and streets throughout Germany. The cars with their specially-equipped cameras are touring Germany now, taking pictures of everything they pass: streets, house fronts, signs, cars and pedestrians.


Editor: Kristin Zeier