Microsoft takes new 'Scroogled' shot at Google

Plays off February reports that Google collects personal information from app buyers, shares with developers

Microsoft today launched a third wave of 'Scroogled,' its attack ad-based campaign aimed at Google, this time highlighting what it said were privacy flaws in the latter's Android app store.

"When you buy an Android app from the Google app store, they give the app maker your full name, email address and the neighborhood where you live," Microsoft asserted on its revamped Scrooggled.com site. "This occurs without clear warning every single time you buy an app. "If you can't trust Google's app store, how can you trust them for anything?"

Microsoft contrasted the portrayal of the Google Play store -- the official Android app store, though not the only one -- with the practices of its own app market. "Windows Phone Store does not share any personally identifiable information with the app maker," Microsoft stated.

Apple does not collect such personal information, either, with the exception of some apps that offer auto-renewing subscriptions. In those cases, however, users are alerted via a pop-up, and must approve the data sharing.

Today was the third time Microsoft has bashed Google with Scroogled, the campaign that has been credited to Mark Penn, a longtime political and media strategist who worked as an adviser to former President Bill Clinton during his administration and on Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. Penn was hired by Microsoft in 2012.

Scroogled first took on Google's search practices last year, then in February 2013 followed with an attack on Gmail for machine-reading messages to place targeted advertisements in users' browsers.

One expert has called Scroogled a new form of advertising that blends traditional elements with features usually seen only in political-action efforts. Today's refresh, however, lacked the advocacy component of the February campaign, which included an online petition where users could lodge their agreement with Microsoft.

Microsoft did not come up with the new focus of Scroogled; numerous media reports in mid-February highlighted the Google Play practice.

As Microsoft noted on the Scroogled site, Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Watchdog used those same reports to blast Google in a letter to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In the letter, the group claimed that the personal data collection violated a consent order that Google had negotiated with the agency.

"This represents the fifth significant misuse of confidential user data by Google in the last three years," Consumer Watchdog wrote in the letter ( download PDF).

The Google Wallet privacy terms do include a clause that declares the payment service -- the payment transaction service required to obtain apps from Google Play -- will "only share your personal information with other companies or individuals outside of Google in the following circumstances," and then notes that one such is "As necessary to process your transaction and maintain your account."

According to the date on the Google Wallet privacy statement, the search giant has been collecting personal information and sharing it with developers since at least Aug. 2012.

When asked for comment, Google defended the practice by pointing to the Wallet's terms: "Google Wallet shares the information needed to process transactions and maintain accounts, and this is clearly stated in the Google Wallet Privacy Notice," a company spokeswoman said in an email.

Few people, however, bother to read such terms.

Unlike Apple's iOS App Store or Microsoft's Windows Phone Store, where transactions are directly processed by Apple and Microsoft, respectively, Google Play relies on a direct app developer-to-customer model. Others have likened Google's approach to that of the eBay auction website, where sellers and buyers connect directly using PayPal to process a purchase.

But Consumer Watchdog wasn't buying it.

"This exception is not even referenced in the Google Play privacy policy," the group told the FTC two months ago. "Even assuming it applies to Google Play transactions, it does not justify Google's sharing of user information with developers. Simply put, the shared information is not 'necessary' to process user transactions. As various press reports indicate, user transactions are routinely processed without developers even being aware of their access to user information, much less needing it."

The Scroogled relaunch was not the only attack Google faced this week. On Monday, FairSearch.org, a trade group that one expert called "Microsoft's Trojan Horse," filed a complaint with European antitrust regulators accusing Google of abusing Android's smartphone market dominance to stifle competition.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

This story, "Microsoft takes new 'Scroogled' shot at Google" was originally published by Computerworld.

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