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Privacy watchdog barks for federal Gmail probe

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An influential net watchdog has urged the US Federal Trade Commission to shut down Google's so-called cloud computing services, including Gmail and Google Docs, if the web giant can't ensure the safety of user data stored by these online apps.

With a petition (PDF) filed yesterday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) called on the FTC to launch a formal probe of the Google cloud.

The Washington, D.C.-based not-for-profit asked the trade commission to assess the privacy and security safeguards used by Google's online apps and determine whether the company has properly represented these safeguards. Worried that Google has engaged in unfair or deceptive trade practices, EPIC hopes the FTC will "take any such measures as are necessary, including to enjoin Google from offering such services until safeguards are verifiably established."

The petition was sparked, in part, by a Google snafu that saw the company inadvertently share certain Google Docs files with users unauthorized to view them. Google estimates that the breach hit about 0.05 per cent of the documents stored by the service.

"That's just what happened recently," EPIC's Marc Rotenberg tells The Reg. "There are very large issues...with cloud computing services, and what we're hoping will happen is the Federal Trade Commission will begin a process of looking at these services and some of the privacy and security riskes and what can be down to provide greater safeguards."

Rotenberg points out that EPIC had successful with a similar FTC petition it filed over Microsoft's infamous Passport service, the "single sign-on" system now known as Windows Live ID. "We challenged the idea that there should be a single authentication standard and the FTC looked at it and ultimately agreed with us - and Microsoft did as well, adopting an approach based on meta-identities.

"We think our latest petition can help elevate privacy and security standards for cloud computing services and that is our goal."

The EPIC petition says that Google "routinely" tells the world that its online apps are private and secure, citing the Google Docs home page as an example. The page says "Files are stored securely online" [Google's emphasis]. Then the petition argues that Google's terms of service "disavow any warranty or any liability for harm that result from Google’s negligence, recklessness, malintent, or even purposeful disregard of existing legal obligations to protect the privacy and security of user data."

It also points to several cases where Google or outside researhcers have discovered privacy and security flaws in the company's online apps, including the early March bug involving Google docs.

Google would not discuss the petition, but it did toss us the following canned statement: "We have received a copy of the complaint but have not yet reviewed it in detail. Many providers of cloud computing services, including Google, have extensive policies, procedures and technologies in place to ensure the highest levels of data protection. Indeed, cloud computing can be more secure than storing information on your own hard drive. We are highly aware of how important our users' data is to them and take our responsibility very seriously." ®

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