Privacy group: Google sharing too much personal info with developers

Google's sharing of app buyers' personal information with developers violates an FTC settlement, Consumer Watchdog says

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the California Office of the Attorney General should investigate Google's Wallet service for sharing app buyers' personal information with app developers, a privacy group said.

Reports this month that Google Wallet is sharing customer information with app developers is the latest in a long line of privacy violations, said Consumer Watchdog, a frequent critic of Google privacy practices. Google's conduct violates a 2011 privacy agreement with the FTC over its Buzz social-networking service and the U.S. FTC Act prohibiting unfair and deceptive business practices, Consumer Watchdog said in a letter to the FTC sent Monday.

Earlier this month, Android app developer Dan Nolan wrote in a blog post that Google was sharing an "insane" amount of customer information, including names and addresses, with app developers after customers download the apps from Google Play.

The FTC needs to take action, Consumer Watchdog said, after deciding not to penalize Google after the company announced in January 2012 that it was combining customer information between its services and after the FTC imposed what Consumer Watchdog has called a minor penalty in Google's tracking of Safari users on Apple devices.

"Obviously, if the commission takes its obligation to protect the privacy of consumers seriously -- and if the Commission expects Google (or the public at large, for that matter) to take the commission's enforcement function seriously -- then the Commission needs to adopt a new and different approach toward Google's violations," John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project director, wrote in the letter to the FTC. "The strategy of initiating enforcement procedures by proposing a settlement followed by secret negotiations and a toothless decree has brought the commission little beyond public condemnation."

The FTC has not protected consumers "adequately," Simpson added.

A Google spokeswoman said the sharing of customer information in Google Wallet is consistent with the company's existing privacy policies. "Google Wallet shares the information needed to process transactions and maintain accounts, and this is clearly stated in the Google Wallet Privacy Notice," she said in an email. "It's fully compliant with the law and our consent decree."

Google's Gmail privacy has been under attack in recent weeks by a Microsoft-backed campaign called Scroogled, but Simpson said his group's complaint is independent of those efforts.

The FTC complaint is a continuation of Consumer Watchdog's past efforts on Google privacy, he said in an email. "We see this as the fifth privacy violation in three years," Simpson said.

Apps sold on Google Play can deal with sensitive personal subjects, including health information and sexual activity, Simpson said in his complaint.

Simpson disputed Google's assertions that it was sharing information necessary for the app transaction. "Checking the relevant privacy polices, we found no indication that Google would share this information with apps developers," he said. "Google Wallet talks about sharing data necessary for the transaction, but this information is NOT necessary for the transaction."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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