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Google Gets Grilled by Congressman Over Play Store and Wallet Privacy Concerns: Congressional Oversight or Overreach?

February 21, 2013 - Written By Doug Scudder

Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA) posted an open letter to Google’s CEO Larry Page on his website today. In it he cites several concerns regarding consumer privacy on the Play Store and Google Wallet. A developer in Australia recently  revealed that he was receiving the names and physical addresses of consumers that had purchased his app, and this revelation set off a swirl of controversy around Google’s protection it’s customer’s personal information. The letter from Hank Johnson is not actually asking Google to change any specific policy, but it is simply asking them to clarify who can access customer’s personal information and why. The tone of the letter isn’t really accusatory or even judgmental for that matter. Johnson cites several security concerns that could arise from the wide-spread publishing of customer’s personal data from identity theft to protecting children from online predators. I don’t think any of us would argue that these are significant concerns, especially when you consider the number of child-oriented apps that are for sale on the Play Store. Johnson’s letter also cites a few instances where developers have used personal information to retaliate against those who have given their app bad reviews. These situations appear to be fairly rare, but it is important that we remember that not everyone who gets their hands on our names and addresses will use them for altruistic purposes.

Google’s privacy policy can be viewed here. It includes the following: “We provide personal information to our affiliates or other trusted businesses or persons to process it for us, based on our instructions and in compliance with our Privacy Policy and any other appropriate confidentiality and security measures.” If you have concerns about how/where your information is being shared I strongly urge you to read Google’s entire privacy policy for yourself. But I think we should take a moment to look at this situation from Google’s perspective.

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Privacy policies and Terms of Service agreements are some what of a legal grey area right now. One the one hand we all understand that we are agreeing to abide by these rules when we click “I Agree” as we install software and sign up for various accounts on-line. But at the same time, when did you last stop to read one of these documents? They are often thousands of words long and generally contain confusing legal jargon that the average person isn’t able to easily understand. (I can’t resist mentioning the South Park “Human CentiPad” episode) But legal jargon isn’t necessarily there to befuddle the average consumer. Legal language is a necessary evil because it is precise. But if the language is precise enough to carry legal weight, then it is difficult for most of us to understand. And that is the conundrum that Google is caught in. If the privacy policy describes in detail everything that Google can/might do with your data, it is long and no one can/will read it. But if it is readable and relatively short then it must, in some cases, be vague for the sake of simplicity.

We will keep you up to date as this story develops. It will be interesting to see how Google responds. Congress is about as popular as Chris Brown’s knuckles these days, so it is easy to give a congressman who seems to be attacking Google a lot of grief. But this is not a letter demanding answers from a company that abuses its customers. This letter acknowledges the value of Google’s Play Store and the app industry in general and the good it does for the economy and its customers. One of the great dangers of government interference here in the US isn’t necessarily nefarious intent, but the unintentional destruction of an industry by over/under regulation from legislators that don’t really understand the industry they are affecting. I won’t take the time to re-hash last year’s congressional debacle. But congress nearly destroyed much of what makes the internet so revolutionary when it considered passing SOPA. Luckily this road-block to free speech was avoided, but we must pay attention to what our lawmakers are doing if we want to keep them from screwing up our country.  That being said, it is good to see a lawmaker writing an open letter asking for transparency and clarification from a corporation in a respectful, helpful way that demonstrates a basic understanding of the situation.

We will keep you up to date on all the latest developments right here at Android Headlines. Let us know what you think about the congressman’s requests and how you think Google should respond.

Source: The Verge