Archives

human rights

Google’s new T&Cs include a Brexit ‘easter egg’ for UK users

Google has buried a major change in legal jurisdiction for its UK users as part of a wider update to its terms and conditions that’s been announced today and which it says is intended to make its conditions of use clearer for all users.

It says the update to its T&Cs is the first major revision since 2012 — with Google saying it wanted to ensure the policy reflects its current products and applicable laws.

Google says it undertook a major review of the terms, similar to the revision of its privacy policy in 2018, when the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation started being applied. But while it claims the new T&Cs are easier for users to understand — rewritten using simpler language and a clearer structure — there are no other changes involved, such as to how it handles people’s data.

“We’ve updated our Terms of Service to make them easier for people around the world to read and understand — with clearer language, improved organization, and greater transparency about changes we make to our services and products. We’re not changing the way our products work, or how we collect or process data,” Google spokesperson Shannon Newberry said in a statement.

Users of Google products are being asked to review and accept the new terms before March 31 when they are due to take effect.

Reuters reported on the move late yesterday — citing sources familiar with the update who suggested the change of jurisdiction for UK users will weaken legal protections around their data.

However Google disputes there will be any change in privacy standards for UK users as a result of the shift. it told us there will be no change to how it process UK users’ data; no change to their privacy settings; and no change to the way it treats their information as a result of the move.

We asked the company for further comment on this — including why it chose not to make a UK subsidiary the legal base for UK users — and a spokesperson told us it is making the change as part of its preparations for the UK to leave the European Union (aka Brexit).

Like many companies, we have to prepare for Brexit,” Google said. “Nothing about our services or our approach to privacy will change, including how we collect or process data, and how we respond to law enforcement demands for users’ information. The protections of the UK GDPR will still apply to these users.”

Heather Burns, a tech policy specialist based in Glasgow, Scotland — who runs a website dedicated to tracking UK policy shifts around the Brexit process — also believes Google has essentially been forced to make the move because the UK government has recently signalled its intent to diverge from European Union standards in future, including on data protection.

“What has changed since January 31 has been [UK prime minister] Boris Johnson making a unilateral statement that the UK will go its own way on data protection, in direct contrast to everything the UK’s data protection regulator and government has said since the referendum,” she told us. “These bombastic, off-the-cuff statements play to his anti-EU base but businesses act on them. They have to.”

“Google’s transfer of UK accounts from the EU to the US is an indication that they do not believe the UK will either seek or receive a data protection adequacy agreement at the end of the transition period. They are choosing to deal with that headache now rather than later. We shouldn’t underestimate how strong a statement this is from the tech sector regarding its confidence in the Johnson premiership,” she added.

Asked whether she believes there will be a reduction in protections for UK users in future as a result of the shift Burns suggested that will largely depend on Google.

So — in other words — Brexit means, er, trust Google to look after your data.

“The European data protection framework is based around a set of fundamental user rights and controls over the uses of personal data — the everyday data flows to and from all of our accounts. Those fundamental rights have been transposed into UK domestic law through the Data Protection Act 2018, and they will stay, for now. But with the Johnson premiership clearly ready to jettison the European-derived system of user rights for the US-style anything goes model,” Burns suggested.

“Google saying there is no change to the way we process users’ data, no change to their privacy settings and no change to the way we treat their information can be taken as an indication that they stand willing to continue providing UK users with European-style rights over their data — albeit from a different jurisdiction — regardless of any government intention to erode the domestic legal basis for those rights.”

Reuters’ report also raises concerns about the impact of the Cloud Act agreement between the UK and the US — which is due to come into effect this summer — suggesting it will pose a threat to the safety of UK Google users’ data once it’s moved out of an EU jurisdiction (in this case Ireland) to the US where the Act will apply.

The Cloud Act is intended to make it quicker and easier for law enforcement to obtain data stored in the cloud by companies based in the other legal jurisdiction.

So in future, it might be easier for UK authorities to obtain UK Google users’ data using this legal instrument applied to Google US.

It certainly seems clear that as the UK moves away from EU standards as a result of Brexit it is opening up the possibility of the country replacing long-standing data protection rights for citizens with a regime of supercharged mass surveillance. (The UK government has already legislated to give its intelligence agencies unprecedented powers to snoop on ordinary citizens’ digital comms — so it has a proven appetite for bulk data.)

Again, Google told us the shift of legal base for its UK users will make no difference to how it handles law enforcement requests — a process it talks about here — and further claimed this will be true even when the Cloud Act applies. Which is a weasely way of saying it will do exactly what the law requires.

Google confirmed that GDPR will continue to apply for UK users during the transition period between the old and new terms. After that it said UK data protection law will continue to apply — emphasizing that this is modelled after the GDPR. But of course in the post-Brexit future the UK government might choose to model it after something very different.

Asked to confirm whether it’s committing to maintain current data standards for UK users in perpetuity, the company told us it cannot speculate as to what privacy laws the UK will adopt in the future… 😬

We also asked why it hasn’t chosen to elect a UK subsidiary as the legal base for UK users. To which it gave a nonsensical response — saying this is because the UK is no longer in the EU. Which begs the question when did the UK suddenly become the 51st American State?

Returning to the wider T&Cs revision, Google said it’s making the changes in a response to litigation in the European Union targeted at its terms.

This includes a case in Germany where consumer rights groups successfully sued the tech giant over its use of overly broad terms which the court agreed last year were largely illegal.

In another case a year ago in France a court ordered Google to pay €30,000 for unfair terms — and ordered it to obtain valid consent from users for tracking their location and online activity.

Since at least 2016 the European Commission has also been pressuring tech giants, including Google, to fix consumer rights issues buried in their T&Cs — including unfair terms. A variety of EU laws apply in this area.

In another change being bundled with the new T&Cs Google has added a description about how its business works to the About Google page — where it explains its business model and how it makes money.

Here, among the usual ‘dead cat’ claims about not ‘selling your information’ (tl;dr adtech giants rent attention; they don’t need to sell actual surveillance dossiers), Google writes that it doesn’t use “your emails, documents, photos or confidential information (such as race, religion or sexual orientation) to personalize the ads we show you”.

Though it could be using all that personal stuff to help it build new products it can serve ads alongside.

Even further towards the end of its business model screed it includes the claim that “if you don’t want to see personalized ads of any kind, you can deactivate them at any time”. So, yes, buried somewhere in Google’s labyrinthine setting exists an opt out.

The change in how Google articulates its business model comes in response to growing political and regulatory scrutiny of adtech business models such as Google’s — including on data protection and antitrust grounds.

A new senate bill would create a US data protection agency

Europe’s data protection laws are some of the strictest in the world, and have long been a thorn in the side of the data-guzzling Silicon Valley tech giants since they colonized vast swathes of the internet.

Two decades later, one Democratic senator wants to bring many of those concepts to the United States.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has published a bill which, if passed, would create a U.S. federal data protection agency designed to protect the privacy of Americans and with the authority to enforce data practices across the country. The bill, which Gillibrand calls the Data Protection Act, will address a “growing data privacy crisis” in the U.S., the senator said.

The U.S. is one of only a few countries without a data protection law, finding it in the same company as Venezuela, Libya, Sudan and Syria. Gillibrand said the U.S. is “vastly behind” other countries on data protection.

Gillibrand said a new data protection agency would “create and meaningfully enforce” data protection and privacy rights federally.

“The data privacy space remains a complete and total Wild West, and that is a huge problem,” the senator said.

The bill comes at a time where tech companies are facing increased attention by state and federal regulators over data and privacy practices. Last year saw Facebook settle a $5 billion privacy case with the Federal Trade Commission, which critics decried for failing to bring civil charges or levy any meaningful consequences. Months later, Google settled a child privacy case that cost it $170 million — costing the search giant about a day’s worth of its revenue.

Gillibrand pointedly called out Google and Facebook for “making a whole lot of money” from their empires of data, she wrote in a Medium post. Americans “deserve to be in control of your own data,” she wrote.

At its heart, the bill would — if signed into law — allow the newly created agency to hear and adjudicate complaints from consumers and declare certain privacy invading tactics as unfair and deceptive. As the government’s “referee,” the agency would let it take point on federal data protection and privacy matters, such as launching investigations against companies accused of wrongdoing. Gillibrand’s bill specifically takes issue with “take-it-or-leave-it” provisions, notably websites that compel a user to “agree” to allowing cookies with no way to opt-out. (TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon Media enforces a ‘consent required’ policy for European users under GDPR, though most Americans never see the prompt.)

Through its enforcement arm, the would-be federal agency would also have the power to bring civil action against companies, and fine companies of egregious breaches of the law up to $1 million a day, subject to a court’s approval.

The bill would transfer some authorities from the Federal Trade Commission to the new data protection agency.

Gillibrand’s bill lands just a month after California’s consumer privacy law took effect, more than a year after it was signed into law. The law extended much of Europe’s revised privacy laws, known as GDPR, to the state. But Gillibrand’s bill would not affect state laws like California’s, her office confirmed in an email.

Privacy groups and experts have already offered positive reviews.

Caitriona Fitzgerald, policy director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the bill is a “bold, ambitious proposal.” Other groups, including Color of Change and Consumer Action, praised the effort to establish a federal data protection watchdog.

Michelle Richardson, director of the Privacy and Data Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, reviewed a summary of the bill.

“The summary seems to leave a lot of discretion to executive branch regulators,” said Richardson. “Many of these policy decisions should be made by Congress and written clearly into statute.” She warned it could take years to know if the new regime has any meaningful impact on corporate behaviors.

Gillibrand’s bill stands alone — the senator is the only sponsor on the bill. But given the appetite of some lawmakers on both sides of the aisles to crash the Silicon Valley data party, it’s likely to pick up bipartisan support in no time.

Whether it makes it to the president’s desk without a fight from the tech giants remains to be seen.

ACLU says it’ll fight DHS efforts to use app locations for deportations

The American Civil Liberties Union plans to fight newly revealed practices by the Department of Homeland Security which used commercially available cell phone location data to track suspected illegal immigrants.

“DHS should not be accessing our location information without a warrant, regardless whether they obtain it by paying or for free. The failure to get a warrant undermines Supreme Court precedent establishing that the government must demonstrate probable cause to a judge before getting some of our most sensitive information, especially our cell phone location history,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

Earlier today, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Homeland Security through its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs & Border Protection (CBP) agencies were buying geolocation data from commercial entities to investigate suspects of alleged immigration violations.

The location data, which aggregators acquire from cellphone apps including games, weather, shopping, and search services, is being used by Homeland Security to detect undocumented immigrants and others entering the U.S. unlawfully, the Journal reported.

According to privacy experts interviewed by the Journal, since the data is publicly available for purchase, the government practices don’t appear to violate the law — despite being what may be the largest dragnet ever conducted by the U.S. government using the aggregated data of its citizens.

It’s also an example of how the commercial surveillance apparatus put in place by private corporations in Democratic societies can be legally accessed by state agencies to create the same kind of surveillance networks used in more authoritarian countries like China, India, and Russia.

“This is a classic situation where creeping commercial surveillance in the private sector is now bleeding directly over into government,” said Alan Butler, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a think tank that pushes for stronger privacy laws, told the newspaper.

Behind the government’s use of commercial data is a company called Venntel. Based in Herndon, Va., the company acts as a government contractor and shares a number of its executive staff with Gravy Analytics, a mobile-advertising marketing analytics company. In all, ICE and the CBP have spent nearly $1.3 million on licenses for software that can provide location data for cell phones. Homeland Security says that the data from these commercially available records is used to generate leads about border crossing and detecting human traffickers.

The ACLU’s Wessler has won these kinds of cases in the past. He successfully argued before the Supreme Court in the case of Carpenter v. United States that geographic location data from cellphones was a protected class of information and couldn’t be obtained by law enforcement without a warrant.

CBP explicitly excludes cell tower data from the information it collects from Venntel, according to a spokesperson for the agency told the Journal — in part because it has to under the law. The agency also said that it only access limited location data and that data is anonymized.

However, anonymized data can be linked to specific individuals by correlating that anonymous cell phone information with the real world movements of specific individuals which can be either easily deduced or tracked through other types of public records and publicly available social media.

ICE is already being sued by the ACLU for another potential privacy violation. Late last year the ACLU said that it was taking the government to court over the DHS service’s use of so-called “stingray” technology that spoofs a cell phone tower to determine someone’s location.

At the time, the ACLU cited a government oversight report in 2016 which indicated that both CBP and ICE collectively spent $13 million on buying dozens of stingrays, which the agencies used to “locate people for arrest and prosecution.”