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Google Communications Grant Thornton

How Google stole your secrets and an iPhone caught a thief

By Colin Grant

May 27, 2012 | 6 min read

Google is the world’s largest and most successful search engine, accessed by millions every minute to find information.

Unfortunately, while you’ve been using it, it has been at it behind your back, searching for your inner secrets.

Illicit sexual liaisons, sensitive medical data, financial records, you name it. The internet giant has not only unearthed it, but stored it.

At first when confronted by allegations in the UK about its activities, executives predictably denied wrongdoing.

But not any more. After more detailed investigations by US authorities they’re singing like canaries.

According to a report by Jon Ungoed-Thomas in The Sunday Times, Google has recently admitted amassing confidential personal information on a global scale.

Two years ago it was claimed Google’s Street View cars were fitted with software that could intercept communications like emails, chat messages and photographs.

The controversial vehicles were used to compile photographic records of every UK street and home for use on Google Earth.

The Information Commissioner launched an investigation and at the time assurances were given that privacy would not be breached.

The Information Commissioner’s Office received written confirmation from Luc Delaney, Google’s European Policy associate, stating that it had not collected personal information.

That declaration, however, was soon discredited as a pack of lies.

The Sunday Times states: “A few weeks later, Google admitted it might have collected some personal information but it would probably have been fragmented. It apologised and said the software had been installed in error.”

Many experts doubted Google’s detailed explanation.

Apparently staff at one of the world’s leading hi-tech companies had gone to the trouble and expense of designing a piece of software that had been collecting and storing emails, photographs and texts from networks that were not secured by a password.

Furthermore, this information, known as “payload data”, was then transferred from the UK to the USA where it was stored on discs.

According to Google all of that happened purely by accident!

Amazingly, Britain’s Information Commissioner fell for that hook, line and sinker. Google were off the hook, they weren’t even fined after promising to improve privacy policies.

No doubt Google also pledged that lessons would be learned. That seems to work really well as an excuse in this country when a major foul-up is exposed.

Google’s spying was not confined to the UK.

It was uncovered in France, Holland and Canada where investigators found Google had amassed enough payload data to fill six floors of a building. (I know that sounds a bit vague because it might not be a big building, but based on what I’ve read I’m assuming it is colossal).

The Canadians found medical info, complete email messages, instant messages and chat sessions.

The Dutch discovered passwords, entire documents and banking transactions.

The French, of course, came across emails from a married man and a married woman seeking an extra-marital affair and details of visits to websites that revealed sexual preferences.

But hey, accidents will happen.

Now, however, comes the announcement that the snooping software was designed to gather personal information and it wasn’t an accident after all.

New documents obtained by the Federal Communications Commission (the USA’s more tenacious and efficient version of our ICO) reveal the Street View software, known as gstumbler, was created to gather personal information.

And to add insult to our injury, gstumbler was the brainchild of Marius Milner, a 41-year-old British software designer from Hove, East Sussex.

No wonder Harlow Tory MP Robert Halfon was moved to say: “I find it hard to believe that a company with the creative genius and originality of Google could map the personal wi-fi details, computer passwords and email addresses of millions of people around the world and not know what it was doing.”

This story will no doubt run and run and you can always Google it to get an update. On second thoughts...

The pitfalls of Modern Technology also feature in The Observer, where Barbara Ellen writes about a Disney cruise ship worker called Nelson who is “alleged” to have stolen a passenger’s iPhone.

While still aboard the liner the “alleged” thief “proceeded to take photographs of himself, his girlfriend and friends, not realising that the pictures were being

automatically uploaded onto Apple’s iCloud for the victim to peruse.

“The victim then put snarky comments on the photos, where they became a viral sensation.”

Apparently the thief’s name was discovered because he helpfully posed wearing his employee name badge.

As Barbara Ellen put it, the episode brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “thick as thieves”.

Finally, to a sports story, which comes from the Business section of The Sunday Telegraph.

Dashwood, a diary edited by Anna White, describes a night out I would love to have attended.

“Last Thursday, KPMG hosted a City boxing tournament at the Canary Wharf Hotel.

“The evening saw KPMG fighters take on financiers from Goldman Sachs, HSBC, hedge fund Newedge and law firm Weil Gotshal—all of whom train at the same City boxing gym in Blackfriars.

“In front of an audience including FTI Consulting, Grant Thornton and Freshfields clients, the global economy played out in the ring.”

So, how did your banker get on?

HSBC’s Asif Patel beat KMPG partner Richard O’Dwyer over three rounds.

Goldman Sachs analyst Fei Sun “took a pounding” (although there is no mention of the pounder. You’ll never make a boxing correspondent, Anna).

Edgar Gajauskas, of broker Newedge, displayed some nifty footwork against KPMG director David Davidson.

And Weil Gotsham lawyer, Tom McKay, lost on a technicality.

The event raised £20,000 for charities, proving, in case anybody doubted it, that bankers really do have a heart after all!

COLIN GRANT is a former journalist who now runs Spectrum PR, a Glasgow-based public relations and media consultancy. We put the PR into your PRofile!

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